Government

White House hopefuls storm Iowa in last efforts to win support

But many caucusgoers say they're still playing the field

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a pack crowd during a community event at the
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to a pack crowd during a community event at the Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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On Monday night, Iowans will kick off the presidential nomination process in “a moment of glorious democracy,” according to former Secretary of State John Kerry, one of many political dignitaries in the state Saturday to remind Democratic caucusgoers of their responsibility — and ability — to alter the course of the nation.

Kerry, winner of the 2004 Democratic caucuses, exhorted more than 500 people at Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy in Cedar Rapids to back former Vice President Joe Biden. “He’s out there for us,” he said. “He’s out there for the country.”

The Biden entourage, though, hardly had the state to itself in the closing hours of the caucus campaign. In the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas alone, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg also held campaign events Saturday. Some of them hosted more events in the area Sunday, joined by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and businessman Tom Steyer.

On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld held a town hall at Cornell College where he was joined by former Iowa U.S. Rep. Jim Leach.

Each was trying to persuade Iowans to support him or her when they go to some 1,800 caucus sites at 7 p.m. Monday across the state.

In a rarity, the Des Moines Register halted the release Saturday night of an Iowa Poll that was to reveal which candidate was in the lead. The newspaper said questions had been raised about how this poll was conducted — that one candidate was omitted from at least one survey.

The last Iowa Poll, released in January, showed Sanders ahead.

Noting that only 15 percent of Iowa’s population caucused in 2016, Sanders said increasing participation on Monday and in November is the key to winning. The Vermont senator called on Iowans to set a record for caucus turnout.

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“If there is a higher voter turnout, we will win,” he told a crowd of 3,000 at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, where he hosted a concert Saturday night with Vampire Weekend.

Warren didn’t bring a band but did bring her golden retriever, Bailey, on the campaign trail.

“Get in this fight because this moment in history will not come our way again,” the Massachusetts senator told more than 900 people at Iowa City West High School before inviting them to a selfie line with her dog. “Dream big, fight hard and win.”

Biden delivered encouragement and a warning, telling the crowd “every four years, democracy begins here in Iowa ... and never have you had a greater responsibility because of the man who is president.”

“We owe it to our country to make sure Donald Trump is not the next president,” he said.

Audiences for the candidates were mixes of Iowans who have locked in their support or who were giving candidates one last chance to convince them, and many out-of-state “caucus tourists” who wanted to see potential presidents and share in the excitement.

Sarah Halem Keuseman was at the Roosevelt magnet middle school “because Joe Biden is Oliver’s favorite candidate and I promised to bring him,” she said about her 6-year-old son.

Oliver likes Biden because “he’s really, really nice and is trying to fix all the problems” like climate change.

Oliver’s mom favored Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, but was “shopping around for a second choice if Klobuchar is not viable.”

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She doesn’t know if Biden will be that candidate “because I’m hesitant to back another old, white guy. We’ve had a lot of people from that generation.”

Terry Hiatt of Cedar Rapids and Tracy Whitford of Marion had no doubts about Biden.

“He has more experience and he can repair the damage that has been done foreign-wise,” Hiatt said.

“Honesty, integrity,” Whitford said. “He’ll get us back to where we need to be.

Laurie Gaskell flew in from Maui to see as many candidates as she could in a weekend — and also to see her sister, Julie Praegitzer.

“I’ve been following politics more since Trump got in. We’ve got to get him out of office,” said Gaskell, who planned to see Buttigieg later and businessman Tom Steyer on Sunday.

The Hawaii resident loved the 36-degree temperature Saturday, but conceded leaving the Aloha State in February might not make sense.

“Next year,” said Praegitzer, of Cedar Rapids, “I’m going out there.”

Gaskell wasn’t the only one who came from afar. A Swiss journalist attested to “Iowa nice,” saying that every time he concluded interviews by thanking Iowans for their time, they said, “No, thank you.”

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And a producer for a Japanese television network said he likes coming to Iowa because there aren’t any Culver’s restaurants in Washington, D.C., where he’s based.

At the Warren rally in Iowa City, 15 students and their professors from Appalachian State University in North Carolina drove 13 hours to experience the caucuses and attend events for Warren, Buttigieg, Steyer and, they hoped, Sanders.

William Hicks, 57, a political-science professor at Appalachian State University, said it’s a “rich experience.”

“It’s rare in any place to have so much access to presidential candidates,” Hicks said.

The professor said two things you can’t get a good sense of when watching candidates on TV or reading about them in the news is their energy and the crowd’s response.

“Is the crowd excited, angry, joyful, hopeful?” Hicks asked.

Molly Thomas, 20, a student at Appalachian State University studying political science and English literature, said she came on the trip because she wants to be well-informed the first time she casts a ballot.

Hilah Kohen, 23, of Iowa City, attended the Warren rally even though her decision whether to caucus for her or Sanders will not be based on anything said at campaign rallies.

Kohen said she is a “policy-oriented voter,” and will be doing a “policy deep-dive” before caucuses to make her decision. What she’s most concerned about is a politician’s plan to combat climate change.

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Erin Evan-Schwartz of Cedar Rapids was “leaning” toward Biden because of his experience.

“I’m not 100 percent yet, but he’s proven himself and he has one of the best chances to win in November,” she said as she pulled up a picture on her phone from when she and her then 4-year-old son, Sam, met Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden’s experience weighed heavily on many voters. Nicholas Maldonado, a campaign volunteer who came from New Jersey by way of Southern California and to Biden by way of Sanders, believes the former vice president is “the only candidate with character, who can rebuild the country and he’ll be ready on day one.” He had been backing Sanders before he jumped to Biden.

Megan Hills of Washington, D.C., said she was a Republican in 2016, but paid her own airplane fare to come to Iowa to work for Biden because she believes he’s the only one who can unite the party and the country.

“I don’t think the right wing and independents will accept a far left candidate,” Hills said.

Sipping beer in the balcony of Sanders’ U.S. Cellular Center event that featured indie acts Lissie and Vampire Weekend, Kyle Kloft of Cedar Rapids, who is an independent who voted for Trump in 2016, said he knows exactly who he’s choosing come caucus night — no one.

“That way, if I caucus for someone that messes up what everyone wants, you can’t blame me if Trump gets reelected,” Kloft said, turning to his friends — Alyssa Jacobson and Courtney Magner, both from Cedar Rapids, who are committed to Warren but are considering Sanders as a second choice.

“I hate to say it, but this is on you guys now,” Kloft told them. “You guys pick who you think is the best Democrat, and if I happen to align my views with that, I’ll vote.”

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Jacobson, 30, said she wasn’t planning to caucus for Sanders “but he seems to be polling really well. So I’d like to know quite a bit more about him — because he seems like he might be the one who’s going on.”

Magner, 27, said there wasn’t much Sanders could say to win her over, though she said there was a chance he would be her second choice. A Warren supporter, she said she thinks Sanders has risen in polls “because he has the louder voice — like actually, he just yells more. I don’t know if that’s helpful or not.”

Like other candidates’ events, Sanders’ rally, which was stacked with a lineup of musical appearances as well as celebrity endorsers, drew many out-of-state attendees.

That included Ryan Roads, 28, and two friends who drove from Batavia, Ill. Roads supports Sanders but said he would vote for “anyone but Trump.”

His friend, TJ Schneider, allowed that to him anyway, the musical lineup was more intriguing than the candidate.

“Honestly, I came for Vampire Weekend,” Schneider, 27, said. “The bonus is Bernie.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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