Democratic leaders are increasingly frustrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failure to put to rest questions about her State Department email practices and ease growing doubts among voters about her honesty and trustworthiness.
On top of that, many say, her repeated jokes and dismissive remarks on the email controversy suggest that she is not treating it seriously enough.
Interviews with more than 75 Democratic governors, lawmakers, candidates and party members have laid bare a widespread bewilderment that Mrs. Clinton has allowed a cloud to settle over her candidacy — by using a private email server in the first place, since it was likely to raise questions about her judgment, and by not defusing those questions once and for all when the issue first emerged in March.
With Americans registering their mistrust of Mrs. Clinton in opinion polls, anxious supporters are starting to speak bluntly of fears that she has inadvertently opened the door to a possible challenge for the party’s nomination from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and handed Republicans new ammunition for attacks on her character should she become the nominee.
Among some of Mrs. Clinton’s advisers, discussions recently turned to whether she should offer a more forceful acknowledgment of regret — if not the actual words “I’m sorry” — that might help the campaign move on.
Mrs. Clinton took a step on Wednesday by saying at an Iowa campaign stop that she took “responsibility” for conducting government business as secretary of state using her personal email, and that “it clearly wasn’t the best choice.”
Yet many Democrats worry that this newly contrite tone is too little and too late to quell questions, and that it may not last — given that her responses up to now have been so varied, and her irritation with the issue so thinly veiled.
“They’ve handled the email issue poorly, maybe atrociously, certainly horribly,” said Edward G. Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. “The campaign has been incredibly tone-deaf, not seeing this as a more serious issue. She should have turned over the email server at the start, because they should have known they’d be forced to give it up. But at this point, there’s nothing they can do to kill the issue — they’re left just playing defense.”
Rosalind Wyman, a veteran Democratic national committeewoman from California who is also a Clinton supporter, said Mrs. Clinton had not shown enough urgency in battling questions about her judgment, and complained that the campaign’s responses to the controversy — and the federal inquiries that have followed — were becoming only more muddled.
“The only thing Hillary can do, I think, is get out there in front of reporters and take five hours of questions — if that’s what it takes — until people understand her, at least, and hopefully believe her,” Ms. Wyman said. “And we have to have people who are talented, independent experts on classified secrets defending her on television, rather than who we have now.”
Criticisms about Mrs. Clinton also threaten to complicate the political fortunes of other Democratic candidates over the next 15 months, should they find themselves having to defend her instead of focusing on issues and going on the offensive against Republicans.
“I obviously think the sooner Secretary Clinton can get this behind her, the better,” said Jason Kander, the secretary of state in Missouri, who is running for the Senate next year against the Republican incumbent, Roy Blunt.
Mrs. Clinton has stressed that her use of only a private email account was legal, and she is not a target of a federal investigation, which is focused on assessing any security breaches.
Still, with hundreds of Democratic National Committee members gathering in Minneapolis this week for their summer meeting — at which Mrs. Clinton and other candidates will speak on Friday — several said in interviews that they would be listening closely to her remarks on the email issue.
In Kentucky, where a hard-fought governor’s race will be decided in November, some Democrats are privately fretting that Mrs. Clinton’s problems could damage the party’s brand. The departing Democratic governor, Steven L. Beshear, said he believed that Republican attacks over Mrs. Clinton’s email use would continue through the fall and beyond — and that the Clinton campaign had to devise a strategy of more effective countermoves.
“Honestly, at this point there isn’t any great way to handle it,” Mr. Beshear said. “While Hillary Clinton has been straight up from the very beginning, the Republicans will not let the issue die, and they will conduct as many witch hunts as possible. She will really have to start addressing those attacks as the campaign becomes more active.”
At dinner parties and fund-raisers this summer, over phone calls and text messages, Mrs. Clinton’s staunchest backers have sought to reassure restive Democrats that the email controversy will eventually run its course, and that Mrs. Clinton remains the strongest Democrat against Republican candidates in 2016.
None of the Democrats interviewed went so far as to suggest that the email issue raised concerns about Mrs. Clinton’s ability to serve as president, and many expressed a belief that it had been manufactured by Republicans in Congress and other adversaries. Some Clinton allies emphasized that the presidential race was still in an early stage — the primaries do not start until February — and that Mrs. Clinton had plenty of time to influence voters’ perceptions of her.
“Democrats need to take a deep breath,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut. “The attacks on her email are just that, attacks, and are coming because Republicans understand she is the toughest candidate to beat.”
“People have fatigue over the summer in thinking about political attacks,” he added, “but I don’t think it’s fatigue with Hillary herself.”
Asked about Democrats’ concerns, Brian Fallon, a Clinton spokesman, said: “We are confident that as the public sees more of the emails, it will clear the air. In the meantime, we are showing that we are on the case by addressing the legitimate questions that have been asked, while not losing focus on the issues that matter most.”
Mrs. Clinton’s staff largely shares her view that the news media have been unfair, and a sense of frustration has set in. Aides have privately told supporters that the email issue is not going away anytime soon.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides, many of whom are new to her circle, are by and large running a playbook that is dictated by the candidate, according to several Democrats in close contact with the campaign who insisted on anonymity to preserve their access to it. But even so, they must be especially careful because of the inquiries underway.
For his part, former President Bill Clinton is said to be pleased with the campaign’s approach but exasperated that so little of its efforts have eased concerns.
“They need to be much more forthright. I don’t think it has been handled well. Where is Terry McAuliffe?” said John Morgan, a trial lawyer and Clinton donor, referring to the aggressive, plain-spoken chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign who is now the governor of Virginia. “I want to see Terry McAuliffe come out, take off the gloves and explain this to America.”
He added: “This is not a time to parse words. This is a time to be very direct.”
“I think it’s made things tougher on her because it has given people like Joe Biden this sense of ‘Maybe me,’ ” Mr. Morgan added, echoing several other Democrats who said that Mr. Biden would not be considering a run if Mrs. Clinton did not seem vulnerable as a candidate.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, crucial states because they vote first for presidential nominees, Clinton allies said that they do not believe she has been losing support over the email issue — but that the real test will come as the campaign intensifies this fall and winter.
“Her critics are going to look around, see fog and say, ‘Aha, fire!’” said Michael Gronstal, the Democratic leader of the State Senate in Iowa. “So it will continue.”
James M. Demers, a top supporter and fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire, said it was “too early to tell if the email issue is turning people off.”
“It’s very hard to explain the government systems of classifying information, all the rules, and keep people focused on accurate answers,” Mr. Demers said.
A number of Democrats said in interviews that they were disturbed when Mrs. Clinton had joked that her Snapchat account messages “disappear all by themselves,” and had reacted peevishly to a reporter’s question about wiping her server. (“What, like with a cloth or something?” she had replied.)
“Instead of flippant and smart-aleck comments, it would just be better to come clean in a straightforward way,” said Pat Cotham, a Democratic national committeewoman and county commissioner from North Carolina. “People don’t expect you to be perfect, but they just want to know what the deal is.”
Ms. Cotham said she had received overtures from supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden, among others, but had not yet settled on a candidate.
“Her judgment about her email is like a fly buzzing around,” she said. “You’ve got to swat it and get it out of the picture.”