RENO — During a campaign-style tour of the West late last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren did not announce that she was running for president. But in private events and public speeches, her message about 2020 was as clear as it was rousing.
The Massachusetts senator is at the head of a small vanguard of Democrats that appears to be moving toward challenging the reelection of President Trump.
Former vice president Joe Biden, using a political network cultivated over decades, has reasserted himself as a party leader and plans to campaign for candidates in the midterm congressional elections.
Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California have emerged as younger messengers for the midterms.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the runner-up in the 2016 primaries, also has been acting like a candidate as he considers another race.
All five have been traveling the country, raising money for Democrats, and gauging the appeal of their own personalities and themes.
In Salt Lake City, Warren urged Democrats to turn out in force for the midterms to build momentum for the next presidential race, and in Denver, she told a meeting of state legislators and trial lawyers that she wanted to be a tribune for lower-income Americans, according to people who attended the events.
In a speech to the Nevada Democratic Party in Reno in June, Warren said Democrats must do more than “drive Donald Trump and his enablers out of power.”
“I want a party strong enough to take on the hard job of cleaning up the mess they’ll leave behind once they are gone,” Warren declared.
Before that trip and since, Warren and her emissaries have been reaching out to key Democratic officeholders in Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina — three states early in the presidential primary calendar — making introductions and offering help in the midterm campaign.
As a group, the five Democrats are a heterogeneous array, embodying the Democratic Party’s options for defining itself: They are distinguished by gender and race, span three decades in age, and traverse the spectrum between combative Democratic socialism and consensus-minded incrementalism.
Yet absent, at least so far, is either an obvious political phenom like former president Barack Obama or an establishment-backed juggernaut in the mold of Hillary Clinton.
The unsettled race lacks a dominant figure and could invite new leaders to rise. “The opportunity for somebody to emerge and catch a wave hasn’t been this high since 1976,” said Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic strategist.
Interviews with about four dozen lawmakers, consultants, and party leaders revealed a mood of emphatic uncertainty: Senior Democrats see their party in a historically volatile state, and they are wary of attempting another Clinton-style coronation.
But many Democrats believe the party’s turn left, combined with the rising fury of progressive women and the grass-roots appetite for a political brawler, have created an especially inviting environment for Warren.
On her Western swing, Warren, 69, sought to strike a unifying chord. In Salt Lake City, she said Democrats had to close ranks in 2018 in order to recapture the White House.
Warren might please the party’s activist base while staving off a candidate they fear would lose the general election, such as Sanders.
Sanders, a 76-year-old Democratic socialist, looms over the 2020 race, boasting an unmatched following among activists and a proven ability to raise millions of dollars online.
Having pushed policies like single-payer health care and free public college tuition into the Democratic mainstream, he could be a powerful competitor for the nomination — and a daunting obstacle to Warren and other economic populists.
But many in the party are skeptical that a fiery activist in his eighth decade would have broad enough appeal to oust Trump.
Sanders’ generational peer, Biden, 75, is preparing to test a contrasting message this fall, with plans to campaign up to four days a week after Labor Day, people familiar with his strategy said.
In his speeches so far, Biden has struck a gentler chord than Sanders and Warren, delivering paeans to bipartisanship and beckoning Democrats to rise above Trump’s demagogic taunts.
And Biden, who has run for president twice before, has been seeking out a younger cohort of Democrats. During a trip to New Orleans in June he arranged a visit with Representative Cedric Richmond, the 44-year-old chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and this month he will travel to Arizona to help Representative Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrats’ 41-year-old Senate candidate.
Biden’s most important step so far has been to help install a close ally, James Smith, as the Democratic nominee for governor in the early primary state of South Carolina.
Biden is not committed to running and recognizes that the party is drifting from his institutionalist style and relative moderation, people who have spoken to him said.
Harris, 53, has been focused on backing Democratic women and candidates of color, endorsing over a dozen around the country.
Booker, 49, has campaigned with a message of uplift, aiming to show that he can win over voters in red states as an African-American liberal from the Northeast. Booker is said to be considering a fall swing through the Deep South. He is also in regular contact with early-state Democrats like New Hampshire lobbyist Jim Demers.
Democrats expect many more candidates to emerge.
Deval Patrick, a former Massachusetts governor advised by some of Obama’s close associates, is creating a political committee and rejoining the fray this month. He will address the NAACP convention in San Antonio on Monday and appeared over the weekend with Colin Allred, a Dallas-area congressional candidate.