(Bloomberg) -- New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand kicked off her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in front of one of President Donald Trump’s buildings on Sunday, taking aim at the president’s policies and principles while promising progress.
“He demonizes the vulnerable and he punches down. He puts his name on bold on every building,” she said outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan, its gold marquee and windows glistening in the sun. “He does this because he wants you to believe he is strong. He is not. Our president is a coward.”
Gillibrand has struggled to break through a crowd of Democratic presidential hopefuls that already includes the party’s 2016 runner-up and a handful of candidates widely known by their first names, and is likely to be soon joined by a former vice president.
While people close to her campaign resist casting Sunday’s speech as a reset, it’s an opportunity for Gillibrand to jump-start her candidacy and show voters that she’s ready to take on the president in a Democratic primary race that will ultimately hinge on voter’s assessment of the candidates’ ability to beat him.
Drawing on the Senate’s most anti-Trump voting record and a history of fighting for women’s rights, Gillibrand hopes to show voters that she can both battle the incumbent and put forward a positive, inspirational message.
“I’m not running because of who I’m fighting against. I’m running for president because of who I’m fighting for,” she told the crowd that filled about half a block of Central Park West, laying out a platform that includes a national commitment to full employment and legalizing marijuana. There were more than 1,000 people on hand, according to the campaign, which cited a police estimate.
Still, Trump’s shadow loomed. “I am running for president to fix what is broken,” she said, listing several of Democrats’ common complaints about the president.
She also addressed the looming issue of the weekend, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, lining up with fellow congressional Democrats in her call for the full report to be made public. Gillibrand’s rally came as Attorney General William Barr prepared to release a summary of Mueller’s report.
Not Above the Law
“Nobody in this country, not even the president, is above the law or immune from accountability,” said Gillibrand. “It is not often that I agree with Richard Nixon, but he was right to say the American people have a right to know whether their president is a crook.”
Gillibrand launched an exploratory committee in mid-January with appearances on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert” and “60 Minutes,” but she’s formally been in the race for just a week. She rolled out a video last Sunday with the title “Brave Wins,” took questions at an MSNBC town hall in Michigan, and visited the early primary states of Iowa and Nevada.
“If she’s able to blend the indictment of Trump’s agenda with the indictment of Trump’s values while standing on Trump’s doorstep, it could be a powerful message to Democrats and frankly to the country as a whole,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and isn’t affiliated with any of the current candidates.
Still, the senator’s message could be drowned out again as political junkies stay focused on the chain of events kicked off by the completion Mueller’s probe of Trump, and more casual fans watch the NCAA basketball tournament.
Eyes on Iowa
With nearly 11 months until the Iowa caucus, it’s early to count out any candidate. But with a field of 15 candidates plus a few more likely to enter, flying below the radar could end up leaving Gillibrand left behind.
The Trump building, at the southwestern corner of Central Park and just across Columbus Circle from CNN’s New York studios, seems like a good place to get the attention of the country -- or at least the media -- and to potentially elicit some presidential tweets, which could help boost enthusiasm for Gillibrand’s campaign events in early primary states.
“Candidates are trying to figure out how to engage with Donald Trump. Some people believe you don’t mention his name. Others believe you mention him all the time,” said Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas, who’s not affiliated with any Democratic primary campaigns. “Gillibrand is threading the needle, showing the courage of taking on Trump but doing it with an inspirational message, providing an alternative to Trump.”
Gillibrand has made three trips each to Iowa and New Hampshire since starting an exploratory committee, but polling has consistently put her at the bottom of the field. She was at zero percent support in Des Moines Register surveys conducted in December and March of likely Iowa caucus-goers.
While she has room to grow with nearly half of those surveyed saying they didn’t have a strong opinion about her, the trend isn’t necessarily positive for her. Her favorability rating in both polls was 35 percent, but the number of respondents who said they view her unfavorably crept up six points to 16 percent this month. In New Hampshire, she’s gotten more than one percent support in only one poll conducted this year.
Gillibrand, 52, is also struggling closer to home. California Senator Kamala Harris already rolled out several waves of endorsements from top elected officials in New York state, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has the backing of all top elected Democrats in his state, and Delawareans have made no secret of their intentions to back former Vice President Joe Biden.
The New York Senator secured her first endorsement from a member of Congress last week when Representative Carolyn Maloney announced her support, although that came days after two other members of New York’s congressional delegation, Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney and Kathleen Rice, got behind former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke’s presidential bid.
Gillibrand won her Senate re-election bid last year with two-thirds of the vote, but her net favorability among Democrats in New York surveyed for a Quinnipiac University poll this month was 22 points, putting her far behind Biden’s 74-point net favorability and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ 49-point net favorability.
There are also signs that Gillibrand may be struggling to raise money. Her team has provided no specifics about her early fundraising and won’t file its first disclosures with the Federal Election Commission until April, but one email last week included a request to give as little as $1 to her campaign to help her reach 65,000 individual donors -- a way to make the stage for the first two Democratic National Committee debates -- even though she’s already qualified by hitting 1 percent in a range of polls.
On Sunday, Gillibrand looked on the future.
Invoking President John F. Kennedy, she called Sunday for climate change to be the modern moonshot. “We should aspire to net zero carbon emissions in the next 10 years not because it’s easy but because it’s hard,” she said.
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