DES MOINES – With the Iowa presidential caucus just a few days off, Democratic rivals Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg were in full campaign mode Thursday at a time when Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were trapped in Washington embroiled in the impeachment drama surrounding President Donald Trump.
As Iowans prepare to caucus Monday night, the nation’s political spotlight has swept into the Hawkeye State. Trump held a rally in Des Moines on Thursday night, and Biden and Buttigieg were popping up everywhere.
“He’s more bully than president,” Biden said of Trump on Thursday morning in a speech to a crowded gymnasium in Waukee. “And he’s having an incredibly divisive effect on our country.”
Buttigieg, vying with Klobuchar and Biden for the support of moderate Democrats, positioned himself as a Washington outsider at a town hall meeting in Ames on Wednesday afternoon.
“Watching what’s happening with the impeachment, watching what’s happening in the Senate — it gets you down,” said Buttigieg, who like Klobuchar has been trying to sell his Midwestern background to Iowans. “It makes you want to watch cartoons instead.”
For Klobuchar, the break in the action couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time. As more Iowa Democrats make up their minds, she’s shown signs of fresh momentum: A statewide poll released Sunday night showed Klobuchar in third place — her best showing to date.
“My mom has a commitment right now,” the Minnesota senator’s daughter, Abigail Bessler, told a small group at a “Hot Dish House Party” on Wednesday night in Council Bluffs. By Thursday, Klobuchar’s campaign had trimmed the number of planned stops in her final Iowa bus tour from 18 to seven.
Klobuchar has had to find ways to connect with Iowans from half a country away. She’s conducted dozens of local and national TV and radio interviews and held three “tele-town halls” that her campaign said have had thousands of people call in.
Sanders and Warren have made similar moves to keep building support in their absence.
They also had family surrogates step in: Sanders’ wife campaigned for him in Des Moines on Thursday, while Warren’s husband — and their dog — made a couple of Iowa stops for her on Wednesday.
But Klobuchar may have the most at stake in Minnesota’s Midwestern neighbor, where a strong showing would be her best shot at launching into the top tier of the race. Iowa has been Klobuchar’s central focus, having campaigned in all 99 counties and racking up a lengthy list of state legislative endorsements.
Some Biden aides have privately considered pursuing a caucus-night alliance with Klobuchar in which the two campaigns would pledge to help each other in precincts where one falls short of the threshold needed to win delegates, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. But Klobuchar’s campaign rejected that idea, and Klobuchar told reporters on Capitol Hill that she is not interested.
After months of languishing among the also-rans, the closing stretch before Iowa has seen Klobuchar move closer to competitiveness. The poll released Sunday by Emerson College/7 News Iowa had her ahead of both Warren and Buttigieg for the first time in any poll of the state (though her lead was well inside the poll’s margin of error).
“There’s a debate whether it’s ‘Klo-mentum’ or ‘Klob-mentum,’ ” Bessler joked in Council Bluffs, along Iowa’s border with Nebraska, where a half-dozen Klobuchar backers gathered to eat a Taconite Tater-Tot Hot Dish that a campaign staffer ferried over from Des Moines.
“We need someone who can beat Trump, and she can do that,” said Sheryl McConkey, who hosted the hot dish party. “And she’s not all the way to the left.”
A night earlier, Klobuchar had been able to jet to Council Bluffs for an impromptu campaign stop on Tuesday night, since the Senate trial adjourned early that day. She asked about 100 supporters to mobilize in her absence. It appears she won’t be able to campaign again in the state until Saturday.
“It’s not what I planned, but it’s what I’m asking you to do,” Klobuchar said, likening their roles to the duties that have kept her in D.C. “You are the jurors that are going to decide the candidate to represent us,” she said.
For some Iowa Democrats, the jury is still out.
“I’m just not sure if [Klobuchar] will catch on enough to be a viable choice on Monday night. And you want to maximize your vote,” said Ron Markway, a retired insurance company manager from Urbandale who came to see Biden speak in Waukee.
His top three choices are Biden, Buttigieg and Warren, Markway said.
Sue Seidenfeld, a retired physician assistant from Waukee, was sitting nearby. She jumped in to mention that she’s leaning toward Klobuchar. (Seidenfeld then apologized for being so forward with a reporter — she’d already done five media interviews this caucus cycle, she said.)
“For me right now it’s Klobuchar, then Buttigieg. We’re more moderate,” Seidenfeld said. Then why did she come to see Biden?
“I’ve been asked whether or not I’m voting for someone because I like their policies or because I think they can beat Trump,” Seidenfeld said. “I really kind of believe Biden could beat Trump. I don’t know if Amy can. So that’s part of the reason I’m still kind of waffling. It’s tough.”