WASHINGTON – A small crowd clustered around Beto O'Rourke in Des Moines on Saturday after the presidential hopeful ran a 5K as part of the city's LGBT Pride celebrations. Terry Eason, who'd just completed the race, turned to a friend and asked, "It's Beto, Beto O'Rourke, is that right?"
"I wasn't sure who he was, because there are so many of them," said Eason, a retired teacher from nearby Waukee.
Iowa, the first-in-the nation caucus state, was hosting 19 presidential hopefuls this weekend for its annual Hall of Fame celebration, a fundraiser for the state Democratic Party in Cedar Rapids on Sunday.
Many of them, hoping to stand out in the crowded 2020 field, showed up in the capital, Des Moines, on Saturday for a range of activities. From footraces to face painting, it left many voters with an overwhelming number of events to participate in, and a long list of rivals to distinguish among.
But even as the candidates — and voters — bounced from event to event, the one who so far leads them all in national polls, former Vice President Joe Biden, wasn't in Iowa. He skipped Sunday's dinner, part of his front-runner approach of not participating in multicandidate scrums often known derisively as "cattle calls." Biden plans to visit the state on Tuesday.
Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the nation's second presidential contest, are unique in their ability to attract candidates for intimate retail campaigning — house parties and ice-cream socials — before the field is winnowed down and the message goes national.
Margie Morris, 53, a nurse from West Des Moines, pulled a piece of paper out of her purse as she waited for Cory Booker to arrive for a meet-and-greet on Saturday. On it, she had listed in order all of the candidates she wanted to see. "You have to map it out just because there's so many candidates right now," Morris said. "It's overwhelming. We're waiting for the list to be weeded out."
The sheer volume of events and the plethora of candidates meant that some voters needed to strategically pick and chose who they wanted to see. Morris and her daughter, 19, had just left a Pete Buttigieg event a few blocks away and were hoping to hear Booker speak to get a better feel for his ideas, they said.
But the New Jersey senator was running late and the clock was ticking. The Capital City Pride candidate forum, which featured 10-minute speeches by Bernie Sanders, former Texas Rep. O'Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, among others, was set to begin any minute. "Rats!" Morris shouted as she walked away from the Booker event. Being able to compare and contrast rivals on the stage was more important, she said.
As the candidates swarmed the capital, they took different — sometimes unusual — approaches to connecting with voters.
Gillibrand on Friday night jumped behind the bar at the Blazing Saddle, a gay bar in Des Moines, and served drinks. Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to run for U.S. president, spoke at a dinner held by the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which supports programs for LGBT youth.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke with voters at a distillery — a return of sorts to his roots as the developer of a Denver craft brewery — and Delaney waded through the crowds at a farmers market. The candidates also bumped into one another along the way. O'Rourke and Delaney chatted about their families before each took the stage at the Pride forum. O'Rourke and Buttigieg took the same flight to Des Moines from Atlanta, and a picture of them talking in the airport became a hit on Twitter.
"It's just a crazy time in Iowa generally, but this weekend is particularly crazy," said John Hale, 66, of Ankeny, north of Des Moines. "It's almost impossible to see all the people you'd like to see."
Hale said that he'd be participating in the Des Moines Pride Parade on Sunday while the candidates speak at the Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids about two hours east. At that event, they'll each be allotted time for an extended "elevator pitch" of five minutes.
"There are so many competing activities," said Hale. "You end up being in a pick-and-choose situation."
But the candidates, especially those at the back of the pack, don't have the luxury of missing a single chance to work the Iowa crowd. Next year's Feb. 3 caucus will be more important than ever. All the leaders, including Biden, need a strong showing to springboard into a tightly packed month that culminates with the March 3 "Super Tuesday" contests in more than a dozen states — including California, the biggest prize of all in terms of winning convention delegates.
"I hear I'm the only presidential candidate that's here today," Tim Ryan joked as he took the podium to address voters at the meet-the-candidates event in Des Moines. Ryan, an Ohio congressman with a moderate message, is now polling below 1% in Iowa.