Demo­cratic race wide open in Iowa as cau­cuses near

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Thomas Beau­mont and Alexan­dra Jaffe

DES MOINES, IOWA >> Pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates have swarmed Iowa’s rolling land­scape for more than a year, mak­ing their pitch to po­ten­tial sup­port­ers on cam­puses, county fair­grounds and in high school gym­na­si­ums.

But three weeks be­fore the cau­cuses usher in the Demo­cratic con­test, the bat­tle for the state is wide open.

A clus­ter of can­di­dates, in­clud­ing Sens. Bernie San­ders of Ver­mont and El­iz­a­beth Warren of Mas­sachusetts, along with former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and Pete But­tigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, In­di­ana, en­ter the fi­nal stretch with a plau­si­ble chance of win­ning Iowa’s cau­cuses. A poll re­leased Fri­day by The Des Moines Reg­is­ter and CNN found them all with sim­i­lar lev­els of sup­port.

For two decades, Iowa has had a solid record of back­ing the ul­ti­mate Demo­cratic nom­i­nee. A clear vic­tory in its cau­cuses next month could set the tone for the races that fol­low in New Hamp­shire, Ne­vada and South Carolina.

But an in­con­clu­sive re­sult or one in which sev­eral can­di­dates are bunched to­gether near the top could pre­view a long, bru­tal fight ahead. Some Democrats fear the ques­tion of a nom­i­nee might not be re­solved un­til the party con­venes in Mil­wau­kee this sum­mer to for­mally de­clare its can­di­date to take on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

The un­usu­ally fluid dy­namic raises the stakes for the lead­ing can­di­dates head­ing into Tues­day’s de­bate, which will be the fi­nal tele­vised gath­er­ing for the White House hope­fuls be­fore the cau­cuses. Their clos­ing ar­gu­ments in Iowa could be com­pli­cated by Trump’s im­peach­ment trial, which would re­quire sen­a­tors in the race to re­turn to Wash­ing­ton. And the fall­out from Trump’s sur­prise de­ci­sion to launch a strike last week to kill a top Ira­nian gen­eral could steal at­ten­tion that would oth­er­wise cen­ter on the pres­i­den­tial race.

It’s against that back­drop that can­di­dates must win over peo­ple like Barb Cameron, a 76-year-old who at­tended a re­cent Warren event in the river town of Burling­ton.

“I’m un­de­cided,” she said. “I want to vote for a woman.

But, more than that, I want to vote for some­one with real lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­ity.”

“I like Pete, though I don’t know enough,” Cameron added. “And I don’t think Bi­den can beat Trump.”

If other vot­ers agree, Bi­den’s can­di­dacy could face steep head­winds in Iowa. The former vice pres­i­dent be­gan as the early fa­vorite, in large part be­cause of a sense that he is best po­si­tioned to de­feat Trump. If that fal­ters, the cen­tral ra­tio­nale for his cam­paign risks be­ing un­der­mined.

Bi­den faces a far more fa­vor­able cli­mate in later con­tests, es­pe­cially South Carolina, where sup­port from black vot­ers has given him a sub­stan­tial lead over his ri­vals.

And the fo­cus on global af­fairs af­ter the Ira­nian con­flict could lift Bi­den, who built a re­sume over decades in Wash­ing­ton as a lead­ing voice on for­eign pol­icy. JoAnn Hardy, chair of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats in north­ern Iowa, said a shift in voter fo­cus would be an ad­van­tage.

But even that pre­dic­tion came with a caveat.

“I think there’s a lot of sup­port, but for most peo­ple it’s not en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port,” Hardy said. “It’s like, we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do to beat Trump.”

While Bi­den is po­si­tion­ing him­self as a steady hand in the face of in­ter­na­tional in­sta­bil­ity, the Ira­nian episode also leaves an open­ing for San­ders to draw a sharp con­trast with Bi­den over the Iraq War, which San­ders op­posed. The Ver­mont se­na­tor is draw­ing sharper con­trasts with Bi­den as he tries to ap­peal to some of the white, work­ing-class vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas, that San­ders’ ad­vis­ers be­lieve may be open to his mes­sage of tak­ing on the rich and pow­er­ful.

With­out naming him, San­ders kept pres­sure on Bi­den Sun­day, re­mind­ing a fo­rum in Daven­port that he op­posed the 2002 autho­riza­tion for mil­i­tary force in Iraq.

“In 2002, I helped lead the ef­fort against the war in Iraq, which turned out to be the worst for­eign pol­icy blun­der in the mod­ern his­tory of Amer­ica,” San­ders said. “The war in Iraq was based on a se­ries of lies.”

San­ders’ cam­paign vol­un­teers have re­port­edly been in­structed to tell vot­ers that are lean­ing toward Warren that her sup­port­ers are “highly ed­u­cated, more af­flu­ent peo­ple” and that she’s fail­ing to ex­pand her sup­port. Those tac­tics brought a rare broad­side against the se­na­tor from Warren, who said Sun­day that she was “dis­ap­pointed” in San­ders and sug­gested he’s too di­vi­sive to de­feat Trump.

Still, San­ders’ po­si­tion in Iowa is im­prov­ing and he’s at­tract­ing large crowds. His cam­paign says he spoke to nearly 6,000 peo­ple across 16 events in the state ear­lier this month.

But some San­ders sup­port­ers say they want to see the se­na­tor’s team more ac­tive on the ground in Iowa. Suzanne Costello, a farmer from Kel­logg, Iowa, is a long­time San­ders sup­porter and vol­un­teer, knock­ing on doors in Powesheik County, a county the se­na­tor won in 2016.

“I think they mis-gauged the tra­jec­tory of the race,” she said. “I don’t think they came out in force enough in our area soon enough, so now I feel like we’re kind of play­ing catch-up” in or­ga­niz­ing.

Costello said she had com­plained to the San­ders cam­paign for months about the lack of re­sources in her area, and now she feels they’re fi­nally send­ing more staff and re­sources to help knock on doors.

In­deed, San­ders’ cam­paign says they have one of the big­gest teams in Iowa, with more than 250 staffers on the ground and 23 of­fices across the state. That sig­nif­i­cant staff foot­print cou­pled with the con­sis­tently large crowds has San­ders’ ad­vis­ers pri­vately pre­dict­ing vic­tory in Iowa.

Warren’s cam­paign is still seen as one of the most sea­soned and best-or­ga­nized in the state, as she’s had or­ga­niz­ers hold­ing in­ti­mate lo­cal events with po­ten­tial cau­cus­go­ers across Iowa for nearly a year. Her aides will only dis­close that they have more than 100 paid staff and more than 20 of­fices in Iowa, but most op­er­a­tives on the ground be­lieve her team is nearly twice that, as Warren staffers are con­stantly seen at lo­cal party events and out knock­ing on doors. On a cold Sun­day morn­ing, with snow blan­ket­ing the ground, she turned out around 300 peo­ple to an ele­men­tary school gym­na­sium in Mar­shall­town.

There, she was in­tro­duced by former Hous­ing Sec­re­tary Ju­lian Cas­tro, who en­dorsed her last week af­ter ex­it­ing the pres­i­den­tial race. He made an electabil­ity pitch, ar­gu­ing that Warren “can unify Democrats to beat Don­ald Trump.”

But­tigieg has also as­sem­bled a ro­bust statewide or­ga­ni­za­tion that puts him in a strong po­si­tion for some­one who was vir­tu­ally un­known na­tion­ally a year ago. He con­sis­tently draws larger crowds than his ri­vals who have been in pol­i­tics for decades.

Since Septem­ber, the 37-year-old But­tigieg — tout­ing a mes­sage of gen­er­a­tional change, ci­vil­ity and Mid­west­ern prag­ma­tism — has been draw­ing a sig­nif­i­cant share of first-time cau­cus­go­ers into his ranks, in­clud­ing about a third of the 50 cau­cus lead­ers who turned out in Ot­tumwa for cau­cus train­ing Thurs­day evening.

De­spite the hope­ful tone and in­tel­lec­tual depth, But­tigieg has strug­gled with some in his own gen­er­a­tion look­ing for more over­haul in Wash­ing­ton than the mod­er­ate from In­di­ana es­pouses.

“I re­ally like his tem­per­a­ment and his style,” said Parthi Kan­davel, a Des Moines mid­dle school teacher who re­cently trav­eled to Burling­ton with his wife, Anu, to see But­tigieg. “My con­cern is his com­mit­ment to ad­dress­ing in­come inequal­ity.”

And though Iowa’s pop­u­la­tion is 90 per­cent white, But­tigieg’s strug­gle to at­tract sup­port from mi­nor­ity vot­ers has crept into his Iowa cam­paign. Dur­ing a rally Sun­day in Des Moines, Black Lives Mat­ter sup­port­ers in­ter­rupted But­tigieg, shout­ing and chant­ing, be­fore be­ing es­corted out by po­lice.

In an­other warn­ing sign for But­tigieg, he dropped 9 per­cent­age points from Novem­ber in the Reg­is­ter/ CNN Iowa poll.

Still, the fi­nal weeks of the cau­cus cam­paign are of­ten marked by un­pre­dictabil­ity: Can­di­date sup­port is known to shift even in the fi­nal days be­fore the cau­cuses, and the polling leader three weeks out is by no means as­sured a win.

That leaves room for an un­ex­pected can­di­date to break ahead. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota she’s at­tracted grow­ing crowds in re­cent weeks and has had fundrais­ing surge that helped her in­vest in her op­er­a­tion in Iowa. She now has more than 100 staffers on the ground, and 19 field of­fices across the state — fewer than most of the top-tier can­di­dates, but a healthy in­fu­sion at a key time.

But it re­mains to be seen whether Klobuchar’s late in­vest­ment can com­pete with the sea­soned staffers of cam­paigns like Warren’s.

AN­DREW HARNIK — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Bernie San­ders, I-Vt., takes the stage at a cli­mate rally with the Sun­rise Move­ment at The Grad­u­ate Ho­tel Sun­day in Iowa City, Iowa.

PA­TRICK SEMANSKY — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. El­iz­a­beth Warren, D-Mass., left, poses for a photo with at­ten­dees af­ter speak­ing at a cam­paign event Sun­day in Mar­shall­town, Iowa.

JOHN LOCHER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Former Vice Pres­i­dent and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Joe Bi­den meets with at­ten­dees at a cam­paign event Satur­day in Las Ve­gas.

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