DES MOINES, Iowa (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 3 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, 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 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 nominee might not be determined 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 today’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 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 after the Iranian conflict 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 Iranian episode leaves 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, who 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.