COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With poll numbers declining and email questions persisting, Hillary Rodham Clinton labored Thursday to shore up support among some of her strongest backers and ease concerns about the trajectory of her presidential campaign.
As Clinton worked in Ohio to marshal female voters, a sturdy base of support in a historically favorable state, top officials from her campaign updated loyal allies in Congress on efforts to regain her footing.
However, in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, there was evident worry that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was making inroads despite the formidable machinery of the former secretary of state's campaign.
"Sanders is calling, doing outreach to a far wider base than Clinton," said Sarah Swisher, of Iowa City, who in 2008 was a "superdelegate" for Clinton at the party's national convention. "He has staff who call me all the time. And he has the volunteer capacity to make those contacts."
The flurry of Clinton activity this week hints at the depth of concern about her national campaign. On Thursday, the modest-sized ballroom in downtown Columbus was half empty for her event, with supporters herded into a cordoned-off area to give the impression of a packed crowd.
Many Democrats fear that Sanders, an independent and self-identified socialist seeking their party's nomination, can't win a general election. And rapidly upcoming filing deadlines for key-state primaries complicate the prospects of Vice President Joe Biden — or anyone else — jumping into the race.
Clinton remains the front-runner nationally, with tens of millions in her campaign account and hundreds of paid staff at her Brooklyn headquarters. However, while she still leads in early polls of the whole country, she's no longer out front in surveys taken in the first two states to vote: Iowa and New Hampshire.
In recent weeks, her message of middle-class prosperity has been overshadowed by interest in her use of a private email account and server while serving as secretary of state. In the meantime, Sanders' anti-establishment campaign has sought to project him as a viable option for Democrats.
"Don't let anybody tell you that we're radical, that we're outside of the mainstream. We are the mainstream," Sanders said in a Wednesday night call with labor activists.
Julia Barnes, Sanders' state director in New Hampshire, said enthusiasm for Sanders is "issue based" and not reflective of an anti-Clinton current. At the beginning of August, his New Hampshire campaign had four paid staff members. Last week, 37.
Barnes said voters are "coming to Bernie because they believe in what he's talking about."
Clinton's campaign says it always expected a close race in both states, reflected its own robust efforts at organization. The campaign has roughly 50 staff members working from eight offices in New Hampshire, with more than 30 focused on on-the-ground organization. In Iowa, a state that may also play a decisive role in the general election, they have a staff of 78.
And unlike Sanders, they're up on the airwaves: A new ad, airing in both states, promotes a plan to raise incomes for working families, a subject that Sanders constantly emphasizes in his rallies and appearances.
"There are going to be lots of ups and downs in a campaign and we have been preparing and building for that," said Mike Vlacich, Clinton's state director in New Hampshire.
Clinton's team has also escalated its response to the long-running email controversy, which reached a crescendo over the Labor Day weekend when Clinton told the AP she did not need to apologize because "what I did was allowed." The next day, she changed course and said, "I'm sorry."
In Washington, campaign manager Robby Mook and other Clinton officials briefed more than 40 House Democrats and aides on Thursday about the state of the campaign. Questions about emails came up briefly, some of the lawmakers said, but House Democrats in attendance encouraged Clinton's aides to move past the controversy.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the message was "let's get over this email bump" and focus on core issues like increasing incomes and college affordability.
As for the Sanders rise, Takano said that during the meeting there were "some references to Howard Dean," the former Vermont governor whose populist campaign excited the Democratic base before fading in the 2004 primaries against eventual nominee John Kerry.
"We know it's not going to be obstacle-free, but there's still a general confidence that she's going to be our nominee and very likely be our next president," Takano said.
Clinton and her team are focused on framing the race as a choice between her and the eventual Republican nominee. They're planning to place a heavier emphasis on Clinton's foreign policy record, which they see as a way to sharpen the contrast between her experience and the bombastic rhetoric of Donald Trump and others on the Republican side.
In Ohio, Clinton took a swipe at Trump, who made a stir overnight by insulting the physical appearance of Carly Fiorina, the former technology executive and only woman in the GOP field.
"There is one particular candidate who just seems to delight in insulting women every chance he gets," Clinton said. "I have to say, if he emerges I would love to debate him."
She also cast herself as an experienced policymaker who could get things done, arguing that breaking through the "dysfunctional mess in Washington" is more important than refusing to compromise — perhaps a swipe at Sanders' staunchly liberal platform.
"I've been accused of being a moderate," Clinton said. "I plead guilty."
In Milwaukee later Thursday, she took special aim at Wisconsin's Republican governor, criticizing him for legislation that weakened unions and moves to defund Planned Parenthood.
Clinton said Walker has tried to cast himself as "a tough guy on a motorcycle." Instead, she said, he "gets his marching orders from the Koch brothers," referencing the wealthy industrialists who support various conservative causes.
Thomas reported from Washington.
Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, and Greg Moore in Milwaukee contributed to this report.