2020 Democrats strive to be leader of the pack

Candidates hope to find that breakout moment in Iowa

Eric Swalwell, left, speaks with Iowa sate Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids, right, on Jan. 27 at Brick Alley in Marion. The California congressman said he had been seriously considering a presidential nomination run since last year. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
Eric Swalwell, left, speaks with Iowa sate Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids, right, on Jan. 27 at Brick Alley in Marion. The California congressman said he had been seriously considering a presidential nomination run since last year. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)

DES MOINES — By the time U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California announced he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was the 18th person to do so.

Or maybe he was the 17th, since Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., did not formally transform his exploratory committee into an all-out presidential campaign until days later. Or he might have been the 19th, if recent announcements of candidacy by 88-year-old former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska can be taken seriously.

Swalwell was not even the first candidate to announce his run on CBS’s “Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York did the same thing in mid-January. But Colbert nevertheless had a mock campaign sign drawn up just for Swalwell, a blue sign with white lettering and hints of red with a catchy suggested slogan:

“Eric Swalwell: One of your top 20 choices”

The joke, like most, is rooted in an uncomfortable reality. For candidates like Swalwell and others who lack the track record of former Vice President Joe Biden or U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the name recognition of U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California, or the recent swell of support felt by Buttigieg and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, the gigantic Democratic field is varied enough to make it hard to stand out, vast enough to spread donor money too thinly and liberal enough that few platforms — or even parts of platforms — qualify as unique.

But for the isolated perch of Sanders, I-Vt., as a democratic socialist, other political categories are densely trafficked.

For every moderate or liberal, another moderate or liberal is touting similar credentials. For every single-issue candidate, a many-issue candidate is advocating similar policies. For almost every type of candidate — even, for the first time for a woman — there is another woman trying to become the first to win the presidency.


Even so, the field of candidates continues to grow. But those candidates who entered the race with lower profiles are being forced to craft creative ways to raise them. Most have not yet been successful.

As Swalwell made his first trip to Iowa as an official presidential candidate last weekend, he was not the only candidate trying to be distinguished in the state whose first-in-the-nation caucus signals the fates of so many candidacies.

Once there, however, he did the same things everyone else does: He held a town hall at Iowa State University. He held a meet-and-greet at a nearby brewery where he could shake some hands while holding a beer. The 38-year-old, most distinguishable because of his youth and best known for an unflinching Twitter presence, employed no gimmicks and took no shots at his fellow candidates.

But he is trying to separate himself on the issues, building his campaign around gun control — universal background checks and buying back all 15 million assault weapons at large in the United States.

After formally announcing his campaign on Colbert’s show, he held a town hall meeting the next day in Sunrise, Fla., not far from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The shooting deaths of 17 students and school staff in February 2018 at the Parkland school pushed young survivors to national prominence as leaders of the movement for stronger gun safety laws.

His campaign is operating on the assumption that Swalwell simply cannot be like the other candidates, so he should not try. Instead, he will be himself — a white male from the Bay Area suburbs at a time when the energy of the party seems headed elsewhere.

Asked how much time he spends thinking about how to make himself different, Swalwell did not hesitate.

“Zero,” he said, and immediately launched into his sales pitch: “I feel comfortable about being a candidate who was the first in the family to go to college, is paying off student loans today and is raising two kids. I think I can connect with people.”


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The trouble with separating oneself with an emphasis on one issue, of course, is that voters often worry about more than one thing.

In a campaign-opening Q-and-A session with so many pointed questions it might as well have been a congressional hearing, Swalwell received just one question about gun control — and it came from a supporter of gun rights, a 39-year-old Iowan named Jeff Shady.

Shady asked Swalwell how he will sell gun reforms to Iowans, who have a lower murder rate in their state than that of Swalwell’s home state, California, where guns are more regulated.

After Swalwell’s answer, Shady said he felt the congressman was mistaken about the facts: “If this is his big policy,” Shady said, “he should know about it.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, meanwhile, is tying his campaign to the issue of climate change. He argues that the problem will not be solved unless it is a top priority and that combating climate change is a broader platform than some might think.

Building a more sustainable economy creates jobs, improves public health and allows for new ways of thinking about higher education as part of an economy moving away from some of its traditional manufacturing and fossil fuel staples, he argues.

Inslee has traveled to towns razed by California’s wildfires. Last weekend, he visited brownfields in South Carolina. Before that, he traveled to Hamburg, Iowa, where historic floods devastated a town where many residents’ families had lived since its founding in 1858.

Vice President Mike Pence was in Iowa that day, too, which gave Inslee a chance to employ another of his signature tactics: attacks on the administration.


“He needs to open his ears and listen to the scientists who say this will become a bigger threat in the future,” said Inslee, who invoked Pence’s name repeatedly in the course of a tour that included climate activist John Davis and a handful of reporters.

Inslee previously appeared on “Fox and Friends” — President Donald Trump’s favored morning show — to release his tax returns and challenge the president to do the same.

Inslee’s campaign said part of the governor’s shtick is not shtick at all, just a fact of his personality. He is not, they argue, using those moments to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack, but rather just to be himself.

His track record as Washington’s governor, his staff believes, should be enough to make him singular.

But Inslee is not the only governor running for office, nor the only candidate who makes combating climate change a staple of his stump speech — just as Swalwell is not the only Democrat running with ”common sense” gun control as a part of a platform.

Another governor running for president, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, also was recently in Iowa trying to stand out. Hickenlooper bounced in and out of coffee shops and local restaurants, delivering a stump speech that makes clear he was an entrepreneur before he was a politician, that eschews the hunt for “ideological purity” over “pragmatism” and casts himself as a more reasonable option in a field loaded with lofty ideas that will not surmount the nation’s partisan divides.

“I like him because I think we need a moderate to convince all these Midwest workers who voted for Trump last time,” said one woman who crouched on a mini-fridge at a coffee shop in Burlington, to ease her arthritic knees as she nodded approvingly through Hickenlooper’s stump speech. But she was not entirely sold.

“For example, if Biden runs,” said the Burlington woman, “I’ll be voting for him.”


U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also was in Iowa recently to tout her agriculture credentials (the Minnesotan is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee) as a way to build credibility in the Midwest states she says the Democrats must take back from Trump.

Klobuchar leans on the fact that in her 2018 Senate race she won 40 Minnesota districts that Trump had won in 2016 and trumpets that she has introduced 34 bills Trump signed into law, interpreting both as signs she can appeal to both parties.

It is only slightly different from the argument Hickenlooper makes to boost his campaign.

Many voters say they are waiting for someone to emerge from the pack — but national bursts of energy do not usually arrive in a noisy Iowa coffee shop, like the Beancounter in Burlington that Hickenlooper visited.

“There’s just so many right now,” Nathan Unsworth, 34, a county conservator, said in Burlington. “I think it’s going to take a debate to start narrowing it down a bit.”

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