CLEAR LAKE — A few of the presidential candidates brought the jam-packed room of Iowa Democrats to their feet.
Some attempted to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowded field. Some described what kind of candidate they think is needed to defeat Republican President Donald Trump. Some appealed to Democrats’ sense of hope and optimism.
But everyone got a chance. Twenty-two of the Democratic presidential candidates spoke Friday night at the Surf Ballroom, site of the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, an annual fundraiser for a group of northern Iowa counties and one of a handful of Iowa events that gives candidates an opportunity to speak to a room full of likely Iowa caucus participants.
If audience reception is any indication, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren made the most of that opportunity Friday night. Each received especially rousing ovations during their remarks.
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., did not stray far from his common campaign speech, but a few moments captured the audience’s enthusiasm. He said Democrats should not cede values to conservatives such as freedom and faith.
“Values like freedom are not conservative values. They are American values, and today they have progressive implications,” said Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg sent an even bigger jolt through the crowd when he said Democrats must not play into Trump’s hands by participating in what Buttigieg described as a reality television show.
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“If you’re on his show, even when you’re winning, you’re losing,” Buttigieg said. “Which is why we’re going to pick up the remote and change the channel.”
Booker strayed far from his stump speech, using his seven-minute slot to address the aftermath of the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. He said next year’s presidential election is “one of those moral moments in our nation that’s going to define the character of our country.” He brought the audience to their feet when he called on Americans to come together, stand together and work together to “overcome his darkness with our light.”
“This is the call of our country, and it is time for the United States of America to rise again,” said Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey.
Warren spent much of her time talking about her newly announced policy for rural America but excited the crowd when she went to her campaign speech staple of calling for a government that benefits the many, not the few.
“We’ve had enough of an America where the government works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” the U.S. senator from Massachusetts said. “2020 is our chance we can make this government work for all of America.”
The national Republican Party, in commenting on the Wing Ding, took the pun path.
“2020 Democrats will continue to wing it in Iowa as they look to scramble the pecking order ahead of the February caucuses,” spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Democrats hoping to appease their base are too chicken to offer real solutions that will benefit Hawkeye families. Iowans will have no problem crying fowl as 2020 Democrats offer more egg-scuses.”
Event organizers said they sold 1,600 tickets. Between event staff, campaign staff and media, the Surf Ballroom likely was near its 2,100 capacity.
“Most of these folks you know are going to be caucusgoers, so you can really target your money at these kind of events that are maybe even better than the state fair or other public events,” said Patty Judge, a former state agriculture secretary, lieutenant governor and candidate for U.S. Senate.
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“These multicounty Democratic events — this is kind of the granddaddy of them all — are great opportunities to connect one-on-one or to an audience of very likely caucusgoers,” Judge said. “So this is great.”
The scene outside the Surf Ballroom before the event was bombastic, with many of the presidential campaigns lining the street, displaying support for their candidates.
The mood outside turned somber shortly before the program when the campaigns came together for a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the recent mass shootings.
The brief ceremony was organized by the Beto O’Rourke campaign. O’Rourke canceled his campaign appearances in Iowa this weekend, including the Wing Ding, to remain in his native Texas, where a gunman killed 22 people in El Paso last Saturday.
Most of the campaigns were represented at the ceremony, and eight of the presidential candidates participated.
State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, called on Democrats to unite to win elections so they can enact gun safety measures. He encouraged the campaigns to turn to each other after the moment of silence, hug one another and say, “I love you and we can win this.”
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James Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.