Nearly two-dozen Democratic presidential candidates capped what was the busiest weekend of Iowa caucus campaigning yet, participating in three multi-candidate forums, organizing five different RV tours, running the Iowa State Fair gauntlet and making a total of 134 public appearances over a four-day stretch.
In their travels across the state this week, the candidates displayed starkly different styles as they move beyond the introductory phase of their campaigns and into the final six-month stretch before Caucus Day.
Biden: Powerful moments but inconsistent
Joe Biden still leads in polls of Iowa Democrats, but the former vice president was inconsistent across nine events. He kicked off his four-day tour with a polished, well-received speech, delivered with the help of a teleprompter, on gun violence and the forces of racism in Burlington.
“It wasn’t an uplifting speech,” said Jeff Heland, a 62-year-old Burlington resident who attended Biden’s event there. “It was kind of a sobering thing. … But I don’t want to hear somebody lying. This is the truth.”
As the week wore on, though, Biden made a few high-profile gaffes, including telling the Asian & Latino Coalition in Des Moines that “poor kids” are “just as talented as white kids,” before correcting himself. And as he gave versions of his Burlington speech later throughout the week, he did so without the teleprompter and occasionally bungled what had been some of his most powerful lines.
Buttigieg, Warren wow crowds
Other candidates who lag Biden in the polls outshone him at times.
At the Democratic Wing Ding dinner in Clear Lake on Friday, which drew 21 candidates, both U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg were greeted with the greatest levels of raw enthusiasm before taking the stage.
The crowd erupted as soon as Buttigieg was announced, and it took just the first few notes of Warren’s walk-up song, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” to bring the audience to its feet.
“Pete stood out to me,” said Alison O’Hare, a 44-year-old Clear Lake resident who attended the event. “If the caucuses were today, I would switch teams from Biden to Pete.”
Warren traveled the state in a Winnebago bearing the phrase, “Honk if you’re ready for big, structural change!”
She started in Council Bluffs and capped her public schedule at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the State Fair, where she spoke to perhaps the largest crowd gathered for the 21 candidates so far. Her crowd was only matched by Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont.
Warren arrived at the Soapbox stage just a few minutes early. She was so mobbed with fans and journalists it took her 40 minutes to walk the short distance from the Fair’s entrance to the Register stage.
While most candidates used the minutes before their speech to collect themselves and confer with their staff, Warren turned to the crowd that had gathered behind the stage to ask about their favorite fair foods and activities. They shouted answers back at her from beyond the cement barrier that separated them.
“I think she probably wowed me more than anyone so far,” said Jerry Kloberdanz, a 62-year-old Webster City resident who saw Warren speak in Fort Dodge on Thursday. “I saw Amy Klobuchar this morning, Elizabeth Warren tonight, and I’ll see Kamala Harris tomorrow. It makes a tough decision. Personally, I’m looking towards a woman candidate, because men have screwed it up too much. We really have. And it’s been all white, old men.”
Sanders looks to capture magic, again
Sanders, who arrived in Iowa on Friday, used his time on the Register’s Soapbox to harken back to the transformative moment Iowans delivered for his ideas four years ago. It was at the Iowa State Fair four years ago that a massive crowd and a rousing Soapbox speech confirmed that he had momentum in Iowa.
“When I came here four years ago, many of the ideas that I talked about, at that point, seemed very, very radical and kind of extreme,” Sanders said at a town hall before the Soapbox. “Well, it turned out they were not so radical or extreme for the people of Iowa.”
Sanders drew hordes around him as he walked the fairgrounds and, unlike other candidates, generally did not stop to talk to people. He also did not take questions from the Soapbox crowd, as did most of the other candidates. But his fervent fans, some of whom were asked by staffers to give the candidate distance, did not mind chanting “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” when they spotted him.
Harris having a moment
Harris, too, was well-received on her Iowa trip — the longest, most substantial of her campaign so far. The U.S. senator from California began her five-day road trip on Iowa’s western border in Sioux City, traveled through central Iowa to stop at the Iowa State Fair, and then continued on to the state’s eastern edge in Davenport.
She ticked off events with small businesses, teachers, activists for people with disabilities and those affected by affordable housing policies.
Sitting with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, Harris said Iowa has made her “a better candidate” as she listens to Iowans talk about the issues that keep them up at night. She’s crafted her “3 a.m. agenda” around that idea and made it the focus of her trip through the state this week.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing that I believe any of us in public service, in particular, can do is to be relevant – relevant in the lives of the people we represent,” she said. “And that is why I’m enjoying being in Iowa and the campaign, because I’m listening. I mean, it is through that process that I came up with our plan for ‘Medicare for All.’ I’m listening. And I want to make sure that the priorities that we have are your priorities, are American families’ priorities.”
Des Moines Register reporter Gage Miskimen contributed to this report.
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