The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After a wilting summer, Clinton hopes for a fall rebound

After this summer of Hillary Rodham Clinton's discontent, when her public support dropped while the stock of real and potential challengers rose, her checklist for a campaign revamp this fall is long.

New humble posture when asked about her use of a private e-mail system for government work? Check.

New reckoning with the possibility that she may lose the New Hampshire primary, and perhaps even the Iowa caucuses? Check.

Feisty, give-as-good-as-she-gets zingers about Republican front-runner Donald Trump? Newsy policy speeches like one on Iran, slated for Wednesday? Not-so-subtle muscle-flexing to discourage a challenge by Vice President Biden? Check, check and check.

“It is going to be a fight,” Clinton said here Sunday, part of a full Labor Day weekend schedule in New Hampshire and Iowa despite a hoarse and raspy voice. “Make no mistake about it. It is going to be a hard election.”

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail

CLEVELAND, OH - On the third day of a bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton along with running mate Senator Tim Kaine, and Anne Holton, aboard the campaign bus in Cleveland, Ohio on Sunday July 31, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Clinton was speaking at a backyard picnic in Cedar Rapids on a sweet, late-summer evening, and she was talking about Republicans rather than Democrats. But the message is also meant to remind Democrats that Clinton remains the front-runner overall. About half of those invited to hear Clinton were uncommitted Democrats.

“The other side has said they will spend, do and say anything to win back the White House,” she said. “I am absolutely confident that whatever they throw at me, I can throw it right back.”

Clinton’s workmanlike strategy to roll out policy proposals roughly weekly over the summer suffered badly from the self-inflicted wounds of the e-mail saga and from a strong progressive challenge by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Her defensive, lawyerly answers to questions about her private e-mail system didn’t sit well with voters. And on many days, her efforts to present herself as capable and presidential were all but drowned out by Trump’s populist stand-up routine.

“Because of all the stuff surrounding her, she more than others needs a couple months to knock the dust off and to get real again,” Democratic National Committee vice chairman R.T. Rybak said in an interview.

Rybak supported then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and is uncommitted now.

An NBC News-Marist poll released hours before Clinton spoke in Iowa showed she remains ahead of Sanders in the state, but her lead has shrunk from 24 points in July to 11 points (38 percent to 27 percent). Biden, who is expected to decide this month whether to enter the race, had 20 percent support in the new survey.

The same poll showed worse news for Clinton in New Hampshire, where Sanders has pulled ahead by nine points.

“The e-mail thing, I think, is hurting her. Bernie Sanders is definitely surging in the polls, and he’s a strong candidate,” said Sandy Galer, 62, a Clinton supporter who was a delegate for her in 2008 and hopes to be again next year. She came to see Clinton at a union-sponsored picnic in Cedar Rapids on Monday, where the beer tap was open at 10:30 a.m.

Questions surrounding Clinton’s unorthodox e-mail system come up in political discussions in Iowa, Galer said, and she thinks the discussion is appropriate.

“With Hillary, I think it all comes down to the trust factor,” Galer said.

As recently as last month, the Clinton campaign had dismissed the e-mail issue as something only reporters asked her about, and she was visibly irritated when they did so. Now she says she did nothing wrong, but the arrangement “wasn’t the best choice.”

The Clinton campaign has tried to shrug off the tightening race as par for the course for Democratic primaries but has had to reassure worried supporters. Neither Clinton supporters nor the campaign anticipated the strength of the Sanders challenge or that Biden might reverse what had seemed like a settled decision not to run.

Clinton pollster and strategist Joel Benenson told reporters last week that the race is “fundamentally unchanged” from midsummer and pointed to Clinton’s showing beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to vote in presidential nominating process in February and the places she has spent the most time and money.

“We expect it to be competitive going forward, and that’s why we’re building the field organization we are,” Benenson said. “When you look out nationally at where Democrats are right now generally, the fact of the matter is that she is strongly favored among Democrats nationally over the other candidates by 20-plus points.”

Part of the fall plan is to do a lot more television interviews, such as an appearance this week on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and to showcase Clinton’s potential to make history as the first female president.

“The biggest difference is just bigger audiences being able to see more of her, so that means television,” campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri said in an interview.

The campaign last week extended its initial $2 million television advertising campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton will spend $1.5 million in Iowa in September and October and $2.6 million in New Hampshire, reflecting both the faster pace of the campaign and her falling fortunes in New Hampshire.

The first Democratic debate is scheduled for October, and part of the fall strategy is to begin drawing more distinctions between Clinton and her rivals. She suggested over the weekend that she may be open to adding more debates beyond the six already approved by the DNC.

At a news conference Saturday during her visit to Portsmouth, N.H., a reporter asked Clinton whether she considered herself a “joyful” candidate, as GOP candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush had vowed to become.

“I do,” Clinton said, ignoring the fact that her summer on the campaign trail has often seemed to be more of a chore.

“Off we go, joyfully,” Clinton quipped as she stepped away from the podium.

The candidate turned back to the press corps and, snapping her fingers, said, “Let’s get some joy going.”

Rucker reported from New Hampshire.