CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — The man known to most Americans as a porn star's lawyer may never formally enter the presidential race. But as he dipped his toe into the 2020 waters here this weekend, Michael Avenatti may have at least jump-started a debate that could prove critical to the party: To beat Trump, how much do Democrats need to be like Trump?
Stormy Daniels’ hard-charging attorney sounded more than a few Trumpian notes over the weekend as he made his first visit to Iowa since his surprise declaration that he was exploring a run for the presidency. And Democrats are fooling themselves, he argues, if they don’t think the 2020 contest will once again be a battle of personalities more than a contest of ideas.
“I think that if the Democratic Party focuses on nominating who will make the best president, that’s going to be a critical mistake,” Avenatti, 47, told NBC News in an interview before he addressed about 1,000 party activists in the first nominating state. “There’s only one question at the end of the day, and that question is: Can the potential nominee beat Donald Trump?”
For Avenatti, the path to Iowa began like it did for many distraught Democrats after 2016 — seeking to understand why so many blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt who had backed President Barack Obama turned to Trump. Early in 2017, he read with interest the blunt message sent to Hillary Clinton's campaign well before November from David Betras, chair of the Mahoning County Democrats, warning that her message on the economy and trade wasn’t resonating with Ohio voters.
And so when Avenatti began seriously considering a run a year later, he reached out to Betras. They spoke by phone, and then in person when Avenatti flew to Youngstown in July. He left with an invitation to headline the county’s Chairman’s Club Reception on Aug. 6 in what would be his first political speech, railing against Trump for failing to deliver on promises like reviving the local auto industry and saying Democrats could no longer be the party “that turns the other cheek.”
Betras, a trail lawyer like Avenatti, was effusive in describing the visit.
“Michael is very effective because he’s like a Democratic version of Trump — brash, tough, knows how to fight,” Betras told NBC News. “He’s got the microphone right now and the swagger. You either have it or you don’t. He does, and he’s effective.”
Next came Avenatti’s courtship of Iowa Democrats, which began with the help of two local campaign veterans — Matt Paul, who led Clinton’s campaign there in 2016, and Jeff Link, who has played a role in Democratic campaigns in the state since 1992.
It was only two weeks ago that Avenatti called Randy Black to express his interest in speaking at the local party fundraiser he was organizing. Known as the Wing Ding, the dinner has attracted Democrats eyeing the White House for decades. Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and John Delaney of Maryland had been confirmed as speakers for this year’s dinner for weeks.
Avenatti initially told Black he just wanted to attend but not speak. He was instead given the closing speaking slot on Friday. There was some hesitation about the move, Black conceded, and several local Democratic candidates who had earlier committed to attend backed out of the event after the decision to include Avenatti. Black could not say definitively it was because of Avenatti, but if it was, "then it's their fault for not showing up."
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Other Iowa Democrats appeared energized — the dinner sold more than 400 tickets in the week after Avenatti’s attendance was confirmed. With other 2020 hopefuls seemingly reluctant to draw attention to themselves at this early stage, there was an opening for a newcomer like Avenatti, and “he did a darn good job,” Black added.
Potential caucusgoers seemed to agree.
“Ordinarily, a Joe Biden-type of person would've been my candidate, but what he said tonight was exactly what I thought before I came,” said Mary Pat Cole, who attended the dinner. “We do need a fighter and he could stand up to Trump.”
Before the dinner, Avenatti stopped by the Iowa State Fair, dropped in at the Iowa Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign headquarters in Des Moines, and spent time at a soybean farm in Kanawha (where he ditched the tailored suit jacket, but still donned his designer shoes).
The trip was conventional but the campaign he sketched out was anything but the norm.
“I think there are a lot of candidates who are going to run who would make an exceptional president. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think that they will match up well against Donald Trump. I just don’t,” he told NBC News.
“We live in a different age now," he continued. "It’s going to come down to two individuals. It’s going to come down to mano a mano. And the problem is that the Democrats in the past have not had, in many instances, a fighter or someone who had a big enough personality to go up against whoever the Republican opponent was. And I think that was especially true as it relates to Donald Trump.”
Asked if he felt he was qualified to be president, Avenatti will only go so far.
“I certainly think I’m more qualified than the existing commander in chief. I think I am more intelligent. I think I have a bigger heart. I think I have more courage. I think I would certainly command more respect,” he said. But he would “surround myself with the best people,” and actually listen to them.
For months, Avenatti has built a national profile this year in part by teasing out potential bombshells in his client’s case against the president over the validity of a decade-old nondisclosure agreement after an alleged affair.
And many Democrats are viewing this political flirtation with skepticism and even some frustration, arguing Democrats should not match a celebrity candidacy that fractured the GOP with one of their own.
“I think he’s an effective lawyer for his client. But I think we also need experience,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, another potential 2020 hopeful, told NBC News as he visited the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. “You look at rolling the dice and electing a developer from Manhattan who had no experience, and that’s been a nightmare.”
Avenatti would not say whether he’s discussed his candidacy with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and maintains he continues to do everything he can to advance her case. He also rejects comparisons to a president he describes in blunt terms.
“There are some similarities related to our form. No question about it,” he said. “But this guy is a moron. He's an egomaniac. Nobody wants to work with him. I don't want to be compared to that."
In his conversations with NBC News and at his Wing Ding speech, Avenatti was careful to point out he wasn’t a complete political novice, having worked on dozens of campaigns before his law career took off.
Avenatti says there’s no timeline for what he calls a “big decision.” But like other Democrats he’ll continue acting the part, with another visit to Iowa planned this month and a trip to New Hampshire soon to follow. He says he’s been invited to speak at events and fundraisers by a dozen congressional candidates and is looking at traveling to other early primary states like Nevada and South Carolina.
With a potential field numbering in the dozens, it would be wrong to discount someone with the instant recognition — and powerful argument — that Avenatti clearly has already, advisers say.
“Once you've got someone's attention, you've got to lay out a plan and vision to take the country, and how you think you can do it. But if the initial hurdle is getting someone's attention in a 20 or 30 person race, that's not a problem for him,” said Link, the longtime Iowa strategist.
“I think 2016 changed everything. And everyone has a shot."