With a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Iowa was again awash in Democratic candidates on Saturday, as a flock of White House hopefuls traveled the state in a morning-to-night blitz of campaigning ahead of the first contest of the 2020 election.
Three senators previously bound to their desks on Capitol Hill were exultant to be back and Iowa seemed glad to welcome them; the sun came out and balmy temperatures rose into the 40s (Fahrenheit) after days of snow and cold.
The caucuses Monday night will help thin the crowded Democratic field and give some candidates a welcome jolt of momentum heading into the next contest, the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary.
Among those happily campaigning was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, though her packed schedule forced her into a major concession: For the first time, she dispensed with her signature photo line after a rally at Cedar Rapids’ Coe College.
“I’ve been in Washington for a long time, locked down, and I have to get to a lot of places,” Warren said as she announced that her golden retriever would take her place. “I hope you’ll indulge me. Bailey is going to do the selfie line. He’s working on his smile.”
While rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have lately taken aim at one another, Warren cast herself as a unity candidate who could bring disparate Democrats together. “We’re down to the final strokes here but understand: We will, we must come together as a party and beat Donald Trump,” she told a crowd of several hundred.
Asked by one voter how she could make that happen, Warren said the key was to pick a candidate “everyone can run with” and seize on issues that unify the party. “We run against the most corrupt administration in history,” she said.
Across the state on the western edge, in Sioux City, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar told about 200 people that she had to scrap plans the past week to complete a second lap of all 99 Iowa counties.
“I had a duty,” she said of the impeachment trial, “and I was there.”
She renewed her assertion that she was the Democrat best positioned to take on Trump and appeal to voters in the swing states of the industrial Midwest, citing her relative centrism and familiarity with the turf.
“This isn’t flyover country to me,” Klobuchar said, previewing the prospective case she would make against Trump. “I live here. And those people that you are treating like poker chips in one of your bankrupt casinos, they are my friends and they are my neighbors.”
Biden, for his part, made no mention of his rivals or their return to the state. But the impeachment trial was central to his closing argument.
Addressing several hundred in a North Liberty community centre in eastern Iowa, Biden lamented the decision of Republican senators to block additional witnesses from testifying. “The fix seems to be in on this whole impeachment thing,” he said, suggesting that George Washington – who warned against foreign influence in domestic politics – would be turning in his Mount Vernongrave.
“In Donald Trump, we have less George Washington and he is clearly much more George Wallace,” he said, to scattered laughs and applause at the reference to the late Alabama governor, a scourge of the Civil Rights era.
Sanders marked his return to Iowa with a relatively small event of several dozen supporters in the south-central town of Indianola, noting wryly that he had been spending a lot of time in Washington lately.
The Vermont senator cited the impeachment proceedings as part of his electoral case against Trump, his voice rising as he told listeners anybody paying attention to the impeachment trial would have concluded “that this is a president and an administration that believes they are above the law!”
Sanders avoided criticising his fellow Democratic candidates and made the case for his nomination in terms of the excitement that his candidacy would generate in drawing new voters.
He also vowed to support the Democratic nominee if it was not him.
“I believe I speak for all of the other Democrats competing in this primary. … If we do not win, we will support the winner.
“We are united in understanding we must defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders said.
Still, shadows from the contentious 2016 nominating fight fell over Saturday’s campaigning as a surrogate for the Vermont senator apologized for leading a crowd of Sanders supporters in booing his erstwhile rival, Hillary Clinton.
Freshman Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan was on a panel in the Des Moines suburb of Clive on Friday night when a moderator started to mention Clinton’s remarks in a new documentary that “nobody likes” Sanders and suggested those in the audience were too “classy” to boo the party’s 2016 nominee.
“No, no, I’ll boo,” Tlaib interrupted. “That’s all right. The haters will shut up on Monday when we win.”
The comments prompted a backlash from some Clinton supporters and an apologetic tweet from Talib who said she had allowed her disappointment with the former secretary of State “to get the best of me” and would “continue to strive to come from a place of love.”
On the far eastern end of the state, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg insisted the qualities some may see as liabilities – his youth, newness to national policies, gay marriage – were in fact assets.
The country is ready to take a chance on someone like him, he said, mentioning Biden and Sanders as the wrong choices for these contentious times.
“Vice President Biden is making the case that this is no time to take a risk on somebody new,” Buttigieg told several hundred at Loras College in Dubuque.
“I believe history has shown us that the mistake we can make is to go up against a new kind of opponent and a new kind of moment by falling back on the familiar,” Buttigieg.
As for Sanders, Buttigieg said he agrees with many of his goals but says the Vermont senator’s “my way or the highway” approach to achieving them alienates too many Democrats, independents and “future former Republicans.”
Others stumping the state included billionaire activist Tom Steyer and businessman Andrew Yang.