CLEAR LAKE, Iowa | Michael Avenatti, the self-styled provocateur taking on the president for porn actress Stormy Daniels, has told Iowa Democrats that the party needs a bare-knuckle fighter to take back the White House.
It’s a role he is considering filling himself.
In a political scene unthinkable just months ago, Avenatti was the closing speaker at the Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, a traditional stop for presidential hopefuls. His remarks came after a tour through the early-voting state that included a visit to the state fair and meetings with key Democratic officials.
“What I fear for this Democratic Party that I love is that we have a tendency to bring nail clippers to gunfights,” Avenatti told an enthusiastic crowd in the Surf Ballroom and Museum. “Tonight I want to suggest a different course. I believe that the Democratic Party must be a party that fights fire with fire.”
He added, “When they go low, I say we hit harder.”
It was a twist on former first lady Michelle Obama’s declaration at the 2016 Democratic Convention: “When they go low, we go high.”
In an interview, Avenatti said: “At that point in time, for what she was speaking about, I think that was the right message. But as we sit here now, that approach clearly will not work.”
Known for his combative cable news appearances, Avenatti offered a relatively traditional political address that stressed his record as a self-made businessman, an advocate for underdogs and a formidable foe to President Donald Trump. He stressed his support for Medicare for all and “sensible gun control.” He also dubbed Trump a “con man” and his presidency a “dumpster fire.”
He even made a few Iowa references — for example, mentioning a John Deere tractor.
Organizers of the Wing Ding — which has drawn heavy hitters like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in past years — said he boosted ticket sales.
Avenatti said his visit to the state fair included a stop at the butter cow — a cow sculpted in butter — two pork chops on a stick and plenty of conversation with people who recognized him and encouraged him to keep going. He strolled the fairgrounds drinking beer from a plastic cup and traded a gray suit for a blue gingham long-sleeved shirt and jeans, the typical dress code of a visiting politician.
“I’ve learned that the people of Iowa are fairly receptive to me and receptive to my message,” said Avenatti, who plans to visit early-voting New Hampshire in the next few weeks and will return to Iowa.
Novelty candidates are nothing new to politically savvy Iowans. Indeed, Trump — who did not win the Republican caucuses but did win the state in the 2016 general election — was a reality star before he took to the campaign trail. Wing Ding Chairman Randy Black said Avenatti could have a similar effect, noting: “You have Trump, who opened up doors for people who never entered a political arena before. Michael Avenatti has done the same thing.”
The similarities between Avenatti and his chosen nemesis don’t stop there. Like Trump, Avenatti is a brash political outsider with a natural talent for cable television news, a blistering Twitter feed and a knack for a catchy slogan. He has turned those tools against Trump as he represents Daniels and a growing list of critical clients.
Avenatti shared the stage Friday with Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Maryland Rep. John Delaney and businessman Andrew Yang. Many top-tier prospects — including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — are avoiding Iowa so far.
Amid his growing profile, Avenatti continues to represent Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. She has said she had sex with Trump in 2006, months after his third wife gave birth to their son, but Trump has denied it. Days before the 2016 presidential election, Daniels was paid $130,000 to stay silent in a deal handled by Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen. She is suing to invalidate the nondisclosure agreement.
Asked if Daniels would support his presidential bid, Avenatti said, “I think that she’s very supportive of the idea.”
Avenatti’s reach has extended. In recent weeks, he has protested Trump in London, accepted an award in Denver and visited children in New York who had been separated from their parents at the U.S. border. He expects to devote more time to Democratic Party events in the coming weeks.
Asked about a potential Avenatti bid, CeCe Ibson, 54, a Democratic activist from Des Moines, was cautious, saying she wanted to hear from him but stressing that “it’s very early.”
Beverly and Dru Carlson of Kansas City, Kansas, said they don’t usually attend political events, but they drove 5½ hours to see Avenatti.
“I wanted to see him in person because I think he might be president one day,” said Beverly Carlson, 66.
Her husband, 64, added, “I think it’s going to take somebody like him to beat Trump.”
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed from Des Moines, Iowa.