OELWEIN, Iowa – White House hopefuls launched into the last weekend before the Iowa caucuses with a blitz of campaign appearances across the state as they raced to lock down late support in an increasingly fluid contest.
With polls showing no clear frontrunner in Monday’s caucus, the first vote in the contest to challenge President Donald Trump, candidates planned dozens of weekend stops at coffee houses, small-town auditoriums and hotel ballrooms to plead with voters.
It’s a volatile competition, with a jumble of top contenders cluttering the top of most Iowa polls. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a slight edge in some of them, but U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are close behind, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. is within striking distance.
Most polls show a large bloc of undecided voters, a sure sign of the unpredictability of a caucus that might do little to provide clarity to an unsettled field.
Given the uncertain atmosphere, some candidates are downplaying their Iowa expectations and upping their efforts to frame themselves as the champion of their ideological lane.
“This is no time to take the risk of falling back on someone familiar,” Buttigieg said Saturday of the former vice president, his main rival among more centrist Democrats. “Let’s leave the politics of the past in the past, and let’s look at what we need to do to make sure we can move forward.”
He delivered the message to about 250 people crammed into an auditorium in Oelwein, a rambling town at the heart of a rural county about 170 miles northeast of Des Moines that was once solidly Democratic but has veered sharply toward the GOP.
Barack Obama won Oelwein’s Fayette County with 55% of the vote in 2016; Trump flipped the script and won by the same margin four years ago. Among the undecided voters was Robert Lee Ridder, a retired auctioneer who worried about looming economic troubles and public safety.
“Not too long ago, in Waterloo, there was a gal who got robbed – right here in town. People shouldn’t have to be afraid,” said Ridder, who said he was waiting until Monday’s caucus to decide. “Whoever gets my vote better do a fantastic job this weekend.”
The weekend brought another change as Sens. Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar were sprung from Washington and free to zip back to Iowa after the Senate scheduled the final vote for Trump’s impeachment trial to Wednesday.
Speaking to a crowd of hundreds at an Iowa City high school on Saturday, cast Washington as a corrupt friend of special interests and enemy to voters worried about climate change and economic equality.
“Why is it that people who work every bit as hard as my mother and daddy worked two generations ago today find their paths so much harder and so much steeper?” said Warren. “And poor people of color – it’s even rockier and even steeper. And the reason has to do with our government in Washington.”
Trump, too, made a bee-line for the state, holding a rally on a frigid Thursday that drew thousands of supporters to a Des Moines arena. He mocked the impeachment trial in Washington and “radical, socialist Democrats” competing to challenge him.
“We’re going to win the great state of Iowa, and it’s going to be a historic landslide,” he said. “And if we don’t win, your farms are going to hell!”
Clues for Georgia?
Monday’s vote will cap an exhausting race between progressives and liberals, moderates and mainstreamers. And the decisions that Iowans make on Monday could hold clues to how Georgians cast their ballots on March 24.
Though Iowa’s lily-white Democratic electorate starkly contrasts with the majority-black Democratic voting bloc in Georgia, voters in the two states tend to back the same presidential nominees.
Only once have Democrats in Iowa and Georgia diverged in the last three decades. That happened in 1992 when Georgia Democrats endorsed Bill Clinton while Iowa Democrats supported native son U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.
Still, Iowa isn’t generally a good predictor of who will win the nomination, particularly for the Republicans. Iowans have picked the eventual Republican nominee just two times out of the seven GOP caucuses since 1980 that didn’t feature an incumbent. Trump narrowly lost the vote here four years ago.
But candidates hope the wave of media attention, fundraising support and sense of momentum from a victory or close finish propels them into Georgia and other more populous states that cast ballots in March.
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