By Jonathan Easley and Amie Parnes - 09-03-16 06:09 AM EDT
Hillary Clinton is facing questions about her campaign strategy as Donald Trump laps her on the trail and tightening polls show an increasingly competitive presidential race.
The Democratic nominee nearly vanished from the campaign trail in August to attend high-end private fundraisers and to prepare for the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.
At times it has appeared that Clinton believes she can run out the clock against Trump, who fell in the polls after a disastrous stretch following the Democratic convention.
But while Clinton remains the heavy favorite, Trump has rebounded in some national and battleground polls taken in late August.
In that time, controversy has exploded over Clinton Foundation ties to the State Department. A steady drip of developments surrounding Clinton's use of a private email server also persists, punctuated by Friday's release by the FBI of documents pertaining to its investigation into her email set-up.
Those controversies have dragged Clinton's already-dismal approval rating to new lows and have kept her from slamming the door shut on Trump.
"It used to look like Clinton should just spend the fall at the International Space Station watching Trump implode, but it raises the question of whether you can disappear from the campaign trail without it having some effect," said Marquette University pollster Charles Franklin, whose Wisconsin survey found Clinton's favorability declining across every metric.
Clinton has gone days between events in some cases and hasn't given a press conference in more than 270 days, a fact that Republicans have been eager to highlight.
The press has badgered Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine and other top surrogates, Vice President Biden among them, about Clinton's whereabouts and why she has kept such a low profile with the election only two months away.
"I don't think anyone can tell her story as well as she can, so she needs to be out there telling it," said Democrat Nina Turner, a former top spokesperson for Bernie Sanders. "You have to face the voters if you want them to vote for you. You have to be out there talking to them and engaging with them and having real conversations and dialogue."
As Clinton has been off the grid, Trump has been ubiquitous and is increasingly engaging in high-stakes gambits meant to get him back into the race.
Over a wild 36-hour stretch this week, Trump held a rally in deep-blue Washington, jetted to Mexico for a meeting with president Enrique Pena Nieto, hop-scotched to Arizona for a speech on immigration with the families of citizens who were slain by illegal immigrants, and then buzzed through Ohio for two campaign events.
Clinton only emerged this week to address the American Legion's national convention in a speech about "American exceptionalism" that received perfunctory coverage by the press and passed with little notice.
Meanwhile, a Washington Post/ABC News survey released this week found Clinton's image hitting its lowest point in her 25 years of public life.
Clinton's popularity has also plunged in surveys of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania - Rust Belt states that represent Trump's best path to the White House.
"The only time she's been in the headlines it's been about the Clinton Foundation or the next round of emails or, God-forbid, the Anthony Weiner saga," Franklin said. "She needs to get out a more positive message, like she had during the week of the convention. It shows that if you don't steadily reinforce that, things can rapidly move against you."
Clinton's allies remain confident.
While the polls have tightened to their pre-convention levels, Clinton maintains a modest national lead and is running ahead of Trump in the swing-states that will determine the outcome on Election Day.
Democrats note that Clinton has been raising enormous sums of money - an eye-popping $143 million in August alone - that they say will help her bury Trump in the fall.
And polls show that Trump's time alone in the spotlight hasn't helped him. He's only gained because of Clinton's weakness, not because the public is viewing him more favorably.
Some Democrats say they're at ease with the Clinton flying under the radar, believing that Trump is making a fool of himself with his minority outreach and what they view as desperation plays, like the press conference in Mexico City.
"It's good for her to step aside while he's swinging wildly," said David Goodfriend, a former aide in Bill Clinton's White House. "Once he's done flailing she'll knock his block off."
Clinton will make her first public appearance in five days at Labor Day festivals in Ohio and Illinois on Monday.
She has an event planned in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, and will participate in a town hall event with veteransWednesday on MSBNC, that Trump will also take part in.
In addition, Clinton plans to move off her private personal jet to travel on a larger plane with some members of the press beginning on Monday.
One campaign official told The Hill they always expected polls to tighten as November inched closer, but that they have several key advantages in the weeks going forward.
The Clinton campaign will rely heavily on its deep bench of surrogates, which includes President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will make his debut in New Hampshire on Monday.
The official said the campaign will continue to portray Trump as unfit to lead, a message they say is working.
And they will kick off the post Labor Day stretch by focusing on an issue they say Trump knows little about: Foreign policy.
"She needs to come back out after Labor Day and make this about the compare and contrast between herself and Trump," one confidant told The Hill.
Some of that, allies say, will come into play during the first debate. They say Clinton has made the most of her time off the trail by pouring through briefing books and working with adviser on her stagecraft.
According to one surrogate: "She'll be driving the suitability question which is an important metric for a lot of undecided voters."