WASHINGTON — Michael Avenatti held court last month with a dozen Democratic strategists in the main dining room at The Palm — a see-and-be-seen table at one of Washington's most prominent power lunch spots.
Avenatti did most of the talking. While he offered few details about how he planned to raise enough money or hire the staff to run a presidential campaign, one participant and another person briefed on the lunch said he cast himself as one of the few Democrats who knows how to go head-to-head with President Donald Trump. The sources requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss details of the meeting.
Avenatti's brash confidence is being closely watched by Democrats in Washington and key political battleground states with a mix of intrigue and trepidation. Trump's victory over more experienced politicians in the 2016 campaign has reshaped traditional views of who would make a viable presidential candidate. Yet some party leaders are worried about trying to replicate Trump's approach by backing another untested and unpredictable candidate — a concern that was heightened after Avenatti's involvement in the recent Supreme Court confirmation fight.
Still, Avenatti has so far managed to stand out among the senators, governors and mayors expected to vie for the Democratic presidential nomination. Early state operatives are offering him advice, and he's sold out Democratic Party dinners in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's scheduled to be in South Carolina this weekend, and has another trip to New Hampshire planned on Oct. 22.
Raymond Buckley, a veteran New Hampshire Democratic strategist, said ticket sales for a recent Hillsborough County Democratic Party fundraiser tripled within 48 hours after Avenatti was announced as the featured guest.
"There is great interest in him," said Buckley, who met with the high-profile attorney. "I take everybody seriously. Donald Trump has taught us all a lesson. It is a mistake to be dismissive of anybody."
But Avenatti has suddenly found himself on the defensive over his role in the acrimonious Supreme Court confirmation fight for Brett Kavanaugh, raising questions about whether his relentless self-promotion could backfire before a presidential campaign ever gets off the ground.
After two women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, Avenatti revealed that he was representing a third accuser, Julie Swetnick. In a signed declaration, Swetnick said she witnessed Kavanaugh engage in sexually inappropriate behavior.
In the same statement, Swetnick said she had been the victim of gang rape — an explosive allegation that garnered significant attention, even though she never accused Kavanaugh of the crime. Avenatti's promise to provide people to corroborate Swetnick's account never materialized. He says he tried to bring more information to the FBI, but the bureau never investigated.
Republican congressional aides say Avenatti's involvement helped turn momentum back toward Kavanaugh. When the deciding vote on the nomination, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, announced that she was supporting Kavanaugh, she cited Swetnick's "outlandish allegation" and said it was "put forth without any credible supporting evidence."
Democrats quickly found themselves having to answer for Avenatti's actions. During an early-voting rally in Iowa Monday, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker responded to questions about Avenatti's client by stressing the validity of the other two accusers, Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez.
"What is obvious to most Americans, I think, is you have Dr. Ford and Ramirez come forward with credible claims," said Booker, another Democratic weighing a presidential run.
Avenatti said he's seen no drop in interest in his potential presidential prospects since he jumped into the confirmation fight, and cast the criticism of him as an inevitable response to his presidential prospects.
"It is being stoked by the Republicans and establishment Democrats that are very nervous about what my intentions are," Avenatti said. "This is a direct response to individuals coming to the conclusion that I am a threat."
To questions about his fundraising and planning, Avenatti said that he has not been providing details at introductory meetings, but stressed that he has donors lined up should he run and said that "we are going to have no problem raising money." He also said he is hearing from people who are "very enthusiastic" about joining the campaign.
Avenatti's uneven handling of the Kavanaugh allegations was a stark contrast to his role representing Stormy Daniels, the porn star who says she had sex with Trump and was paid by the president's lawyer to keep quiet. While Trump and attorney Michael Cohen initially denied Daniels' claims, details of the payment have been verified during court proceedings. Avenatti became a media fixture in the process, spending hours a day racing from one television studio to the next.
His interest quickly shifted from taking on Trump in the courtroom to challenging him in the presidential election. On Monday, Avenatti formally launched a federal political action committee, The Fight PAC, giving him the ability to support Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, pay for political travel and build a list of supporters. The PAC will not accept money from corporate PACs.
Avenatti's PAC is being advised by Tracy Austin, a Los Angeles-based fundraiser who has helped several California Democrats, including Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa and Xavier Becerra; Stephen Solomon, a digital media strategist; and Adam Parkhomenko, an aide to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and the Ready for Hillary PAC that preceded her campaign.
During his visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two contests on the presidential calendar, Avenatti has also sought out local consultants and party leaders familiar with the caucus and primary races. During a trip to Iowa in August, Avenatti was joined by Matt Paul, an Iowa-based former strategist to Clinton, and Jeff Link, a longtime adviser to former Sen. Tom Harkin.
Avenatti's handling of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight was met with a mixed reaction in the early presidential voting states.
Steve Shurtleff, the top Democrat in the New Hampshire state house, said Avenatti's promotion of his client may have undermined the credibility of Kavanaugh's other accusers.
"If there was any other attorney connected to that woman, it might have helped avoid the three-ring circus it became," said Shurtleff, who said he doesn't see Avenatti as a viable presidential contender.
But Iowa Democrat Randy Brown, who hosted Avenatti at a Democratic fundraiser in August, said the prominent lawyer's involvement may have helped energize some voters who may not have normally paid attention to the confirmation process.
"It fired them up more," said Brown, chairman of the Iowa Wing Ding fundraiser.
As for the impact on Avenatti's presidential prospects, Brown said the lawyer was simply "doing what he does best — getting his name out there."
Peoples reported from Manchester, New Hampshire. Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Catherine Lucey in Washington contributed to this report.