'Staring contest': Trump's vulnerable, but 2020 Dems off to surprisingly slow start in early states

In Iowa and New Hampshire, the phone calls from likely 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are coming in fast.

Heavyweights like California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren looking for office space, staff and support from local leaders, while lesser known hopefuls are eyeing visits to boost their visibility in the key early contest states.

But with 2019 just days away, the looming contests in Iowa (caucus date now set for Feb. 3, 2020) and New Hampshire (primary date Feb. 11, 2020) have also been oddly static. Even as more than two dozen Democrats are considering a run for their party's nomination, no major candidate has signaled definite plans to jump in, die-hard activists have been slow to commit any potential contenders and donors are keeping their checkbooks closed — for now.

Complicating matters further, the so-called "three B's" who have topped several early polls — former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke — have been all but absent from both states so far.

The expected large field and lack of an overwhelming favorite heading into the contests explains the slower dance among candidates, according New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley.

"It's highly unusual for us not to have an assumed frontrunner, or someone of such significance that they would automatically dominate the field. We don't have that this cycle," Buckley said.

RELATED: Democrats who could challenge Trump in 2020

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Democrats who could challenge Trump in 2020
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Democrats who could challenge Trump in 2020

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) - Gillibrand has long been seen as potential presidential material, and her decision to vote against almost every one of Trump's Cabinet nominees has earned her renewed praise on the left. A recent profile in New York magazine further edged her toward the national stage.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) - In her new book, Warren reveals for the first time that she considered running in 2016, when liberals were begging her to enter the race. This year, Warren joined the Armed Services Committee, filling a major national security gap in her resume. First though, she'll have to win reelection next year in Massachusetts, where some Warren allies expect Republicans to spend heavily to defeat or at least damage her.

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) - Booker is a crowd favorite whenever he speaks to Democratic audiences and is expected to headline several party fundraising events this year. One of the few African-Americans in the Senate, Booker has a big social media following and is a darling of the Manhattan donor class. His precedent-breaking testimony against Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a high-profile event that endeared him to many on the left.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) - Sanders won millions of votes during his unexpectedly strong presidential primary bid last year, which gave him a massive following and small-dollar donor base that's the envy of many Dems. He's the most popular politician in America, according to some surveys, and inspires enthusiastic loyalty. But Sanders would be 78 in 2020, and while his age doesn't seem to slow him down, Democrats may want a fresher face. 

REUTERS/Mary Schwalm

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley (MD) - No one has shown more interest in 2020 so far than O'Malley, who has been traveling to key states to campaign for Democrats and who told NBC News in January that he "just might" run for president again. O'Malley failed to crack 1% in the Iowa caucuses last time around. But he was convinced there no room for anyone in a race so clearly defined by Hillary Clinton and Sanders, and insists that he could perform better under different circumstances.

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Joe Biden - The former vice president ran for the top job twice and nearly did a third time in 2016. Could he really make a go of it in 2020? "Never say never," Biden told "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert. "You don't know what's going to happen. I mean, hell Donald Trump's gonna be 74. I'll be 77 and in better shape. I mean, what the hell?"

Photo by Brad Barket/WireImage

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY) - Cuomo has built record of accomplishments in his time leading New York State, including the recent passage of a universal college tuition program, even though he's also racked up some detractors along the way. And unlike some of the other 2020 possibles, he's hardly shown a relish for taking on Trump.

Photo by Brad Barket/WireImage

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) - The former California Attorney General just got to the Senate in January, but many party insiders think she's interested in higher office and that she would be a formidable candidate for the White House. Political talent scouts have been watching her for years, with a 2015 Washington Post headline asking, "Is Kamala Harris the next Barack Obama?"

Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images

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Hillary Clinton filled that role at this stage in both the 2008 and 2016 contests, while in 2012 President Barack Obama was running for re-election.

Activists in both states expect things ramp up in January, when several likely contenders will announce they're forming exploratory committees or declare flat out that they are running.

Warren is expected to make her first visit to Iowa early next year, having intentionally stayed away in 2018 while running for re-election to the Senate. Harris may time a presidential announcement around a multi-city tour to promote her new book, "The Truths We Hold," which comes out on Jan. 8.

Still, given the large field expected, local Democratic organizers say they've been surprised by the relatively slow start in the two states where presidential politics can be a full-time endeavor.

Sean Bagniewski, chairman of Iowa's Polk County Democrats, put it this way: "The whole field has been in a staring contest to see who moves first. And there's a real hesitation for anyone sign on with a candidate now, because you don't know who else is going to get in."

Of the so-called top tier candidates, Booker has been the most visible in the early states. He spoke at the New Hampshire Democrats' victory celebration earlier this month, and headlined a state party gathering in Iowa in October. His PAC contributed heavily to both state parties and to Democrats running for office in both places, and he has been among the most aggressive in seeking campaign staff in both states.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a likely but lesser-known hopeful, has impressed Democrats in both Iowa and New Hampshire and has been actively planning his next moves. He held a conference call recently with donors across the country, in part to solicit input on how to position himself in the early voting states.

Others considering a bid also have dipped a toe into Iowa and New Hampshire. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand campaigned in New Hampshire with Democrats ahead of the midterms, while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar made a similar visit to Iowa. California Rep. Eric Swalwell has made several visits to Iowa, while Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was in New Hampshire earlier this month.

Still, many activists in both states are awaiting an indication from Biden, Sanders and O'Rourke before committing to a candidate.

With their high national name recognition and built in network of supporters, Biden and Sanders are likely to wait a while before making their plans known. Biden, who ran unsuccessfully for the party's nomination in 1988 and 2008, has said concern for family will dictate whether he runs this time. Sanders, who nearly toppled Clinton in 2016 with a progressive challenge from the left, has an existing network in both Iowa and New Hampshire he can restart.

O'Rourke, a newcomer to national politics who nonetheless caught fire with Democrats around the country with his challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas. O'Rourke lost by less than 3 points, and raised at least $80 million through a national grassroots fundraising network that strategists believe he could easily tap again as a presidential contender.

Activists in Iowa and New Hampshire have heard little to nothing from any of the three, but their shadows loom large.

"Their entry, or decision not to get in, has huge ramifications on the race," Bagniewski said.

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