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All eyes on steak fry: Democrats picnic with 17 presidential candidates in Des Moines

Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, which sold 12,000 tickets, was an opportunity for lesser-known candidates

A crowd that the organizers counted as more than 12,000 Iowa Democrats gathers to hear 17 of the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates speak at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa U.S., September 21, 2019.  REUTERS/Kathryn Gamble
A crowd that the organizers counted as more than 12,000 Iowa Democrats gathers to hear 17 of the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates speak at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa U.S., September 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kathryn Gamble
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DES MOINES — On a warm, rainy day in Des Moines, Iowans at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry were starting to make up their minds about the presidential candidate they will support at the Iowa caucuses in February.

Thousands of spectators ate steak, drank beer and sat on folding chairs under sprawling trees in Water Works Park to listen to 17 candidates speak about issues including climate change, health care, trade, education and, most of all, defeating President Donald Trump.

Some of the biggest cheers of the day came when New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker talked about getting Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell out of office, and when South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would defend women’s reproductive rights.

Before and after speeches, candidates stopped to shake hands, pose for photos and talk with Iowans.

“It’s kind of like a big picnic,” said Rebecca McMahon, 45, of Cumming.

She and husband, Sean, brought their four children, ages 11, 9, 8 and 6, to the Steak Fry, where McMahon was served a veggie burger by Booker, who is a vegetarian. Nearby, their younger boys battled with sticks. Rebecca McMahon said she likes Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but was “still listening.”

Marley McMahon, 11, said she liked when former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke talked about getting guns off the streets. She also wanted to do a pinkie promise with Warren.

A photo of Warren crouching to clasp pinkies with a little girl in Arizona went viral in August after Warren retweeted, writing “Whenever I meet a little girl, I say: ‘I’m running for president, because that’s what girls do.’ ” The Hill reported.

Jim Hammer, 87, a Korean War veteran from Ankeny, said he couldn’t see voting for Warren or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders because they are too liberal.

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“They want to give away everything, but they don’t say who is going to pay for it,” he said.

Hammer is leaning toward Buttigieg, who served in the Navy Reserve and had one six-month tour in Afghanistan, or “the guy from El Paso,” which is O’Rourke.

Policy proposals from Kamala Harris, the California senator, won over Kyrstin Delagardelle, 31, a Des Moines school board member.

“It would be great if our diverse teacher force could continue to grow and look more like our kids,” Delagardelle said, referencing Iowa’s overwhelmingly white and female teaching staff. “I think the support she wants to throw to HBCUs’ (historically black colleges and universities) teaching programs will make a huge difference for doing that.

“But there are a lot of heart reasons too,” she added. “Twenty or 25 years ago, when I was a little girl, I could have used someone who looked like me — like Kamala, multiracial. I could have used someone like that.”

Saturday’s Steak Fry, for which 12,000 tickets were sold, was a big opportunity for some lesser-known candidates to get face time with Iowans.

“This is the real stuff,” author and candidate Marianne Williamson said. “This is what it should be, the candidates and people really talking.”

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who has less than 1 percent support among polls of likely caucusgoers, said more people recognized him at the Steak Fry after he started running ads in Iowa. Politico reported last week Bennet bought at least $1 million on TV and digital ads here.

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“Today was just a great day,” he said. “I had no name ID when I started this race, people didn’t know who I was. And now we’re beginning to communicate with people.”

Iowa is especially challenging, said former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, because caucusgoers often want a personal connection with their candidate.

“I like the access here, it makes you work,” Sestak said. “I think Americans want to see if you’re willing to work, because they want to know if you’re going to work for them up there.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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