DES MOINES (AP) — 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 — Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — enters 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 Feb. 3 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 that the nominee might not be determined until the party convenes in Milwaukee this summer to declare its candidate to take on President Donald Trump.
The unusually fluid dynamic raises the stakes heading into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. debate, which will be the final televised gathering for the White House hopefuls before the caucuses. The two other candidates who qualified for the Des Moines debate, which will air on CNN, are Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer.
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 to kill a top Iranian general could steal attention from the candidates.
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 amid the conflict with Iran could lift Biden, who built a resume over decades in Washington as a leading voice on foreign policy. JoAnn Hardy, chairwoman 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 U.S.-Iranian hostilities leave an opening for Sanders to draw a sharp contrast with Biden over the Iraq War, which Sanders opposed. The Vermont senator is looking to appeal to white working-class voters, particularly in rural areas, whom Sanders’ advisers believe may be open to his message of taking on the rich and powerful.
Without naming him, Sanders kept pressure on Biden on Sunday, reminding a forum in Davenport that he opposed the 2002 authorization for military force in Iraq.
Sanders’ campaign volunteers have also 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 Sanders from Warren, who said Sunday that she was “disappointed” in Sanders and suggested that he’s too divisive to defeat Trump.
Still, Sanders’ poll numbers in Iowa are improving, and he’s attracting large crowds. His campaign staffers say they have one of the biggest teams in Iowa. Those factors have 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. 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 Julián 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 one evening last week.
However, Buttigieg has struggled with some in his own generation who are looking for more overhaul in Washington than he 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.”
The final weeks leading up to the caucuses are often marked by unpredictability: Candidate support is known to shift even in the final days, and the polling leader three weeks out is by no means assured a win.
That leaves room for an unexpected candidate to break ahead.
Klobuchar has attracted growing crowds in recent weeks and has had a fundraising surge that helped her invest in her operation in Iowa. But it remains to be seen whether her late investment can compete with the seasoned staffers of other campaigns.