In conversations with 17 state and national party leaders, nearly all expressed some level of unease with where the field stands and a deepening concern that, even as Trump suffers through one of the darkest phases of his presidency, the leading presidential contenders would struggle mightily in a one-on-one contest with him. For all of his challenges, Trump commands a gigantic operation that has vacuumed up unprecedented sums of money, an unparalleled megaphone to lure in voters and a lock on most of the Republican Party. Democrats face the possibility of a long primary fight that could cleave the party along ideological and generational lines and leave the nominee campaigning against an incumbent whom Democrats see as simultaneously weak and hard to beat.
The unpredictable nature of the race so far has contributed to Democrats’ unease. Candidates who at first seemed to combine crowd-pleasing star power with center-left appeal, such as O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), faded quickly. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has commanded attention on the debate stage but been unable to appeal to black voters, a concern underscored Tuesday by a leaked memo detailing a focus group of black South Carolina voters who expressed discomfort with him being gay.