After first major Iowa weekend, Democrats set sights on February caucuses

ABC News 1 month ago

After drum lines, chants, gaggles and forums at the recent Polk County Steak Fry, the 2020 Democratic hopefuls are now setting their sights on the first milestone of the presidential marathon – February’s Iowa caucuses.

The Steak Fry, sponsored by the county’s state Democratic party, offered a vivid representation of each presidential candidate’s campaign identity. Each candidates' group of supporters vied for voters’ attention with splashy visual displays – demonstrations of political force that, coupled with new CNN and Des Moines Register poll results of voters likely to attend the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, reinforced the notion that Hawkeye State voters could shake up front-runner expectations come February.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry on Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry on Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

"They're using this moment to reach out to potential caucus-goers and in the other early states they're reaching out to potential primary voters and trying to lock down a lot of commitments and to expand from there," University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket told ABC News.

The CNN and the Des Moines Register poll noted nearly two-thirds of likely Democratic caucus-goers have yet to make up their mind about who they would vote for.

The poll also indicated virtual ties between former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen.Elizabeth Warren – both of whom had been investing in Iowa for months, and whose on-the-ground showing in the state couldn’t have been more different.

And while Warren's lead in recent Iowa polls may be relatively small, as political experts say, it could serve as a push for her campaign in groundwork and fundraising as the primary season deepens.

Warren’s entrance to the Steak Fry was relatively unassuming. Organizers roamed the park before her arrival from a forum a few miles away and cheered her on as she delivered her speech. From there, Warren participated in a signature selfie line and made her exit.

In contrast, Biden spent the whole day rallying with supporters, complete with a marching band, dancers, ice cream and a firetruck. The flashy show culminated with Biden jogging up on stage just as it began to lightly rain on the crowd. Biden noted it wasn’t his first Steak Fry and referenced Iowa’s longest-serving Democratic senator who began the political tradition decades ago.

“I started off here when it was the Tom Harkin Steak Fry,” he said. “But it wasn’t ever this big.”

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden works the grill during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden works the grill during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who also made a splash Saturday as she danced her way through the Steak Fry with a marching band and drumline. Ahead of the Steak Fry weekend, the Harris campaign announced a renewed focus on organizing in the state Iowa as she tries to regain ground.

“We’ve had over 60 people on the ground, we’re gonna double that after Labor, it was always the plan that we would double our resources,” Harris told ABC News’ Rachel Scott.

“It has been from day 1 about investing in Iowa,” she added.

Later, Harris took to the stage to relay those goals to supporters.

“I don’t know if you guys heard, I’m planning on moving to Iowa,” Harris joked on stage about what’s likely to be in store for both her, and many other 2020 Democratic candidates in the near future.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s supporters also seemed to play into the grand scale of the gathering. Armed with larger than life cutouts of the mayor’s head, his supporters were ubiquitous around the Des Moines Water Works Park, where the event was held.

Buttigieg's organizers were positioned at every major entrance to the event, and the arrangement implied a real-time example of the fruits of his campaign’s labor. Over preceding weeks, the Buttigieg campaign opened 20 Iowa offices in 20 days, staffed up and kicked off a state-wide bus tour.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders greets guests at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry on Sept. 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders greets guests at the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry on Sept. 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.

The other progressive candidate in the pack, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, also seemed to make his rounds in Iowa in a relatively quiet manner. Sanders, who lost Iowa by a razor-thin margin in 2016, made a point of boasting his low-key showing at the Steak Fry.

“We drove in here and saw a million Joe Biden signs and not many of ours,” he told supporters before taking the Steak Fry stage. “That’s great. We don’t want them to be here in the field, but on peoples’ lawns.”

On stage, Sanders took another veiled swipe at Biden, insisting that “continuing to be dependent on the wealthy and powerful for campaign contributions is not the way forward.”

And now experts say, the digs and jabs that have mostly been directed at Biden so far – and to certain extent at Sanders – are likely to start pointing at Warren, as she rises to the top-tier of the race.

"The one thing that I'm watching for is the broadsides that will inevitably be launched by the other campaigns," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "They're not going to sit there and let Elizabeth Warren rocket to the top and not say anything."


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