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Thousands hear messages of hope, calls to action from Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden walks on stage to speak Friday at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden walks on stage to speak Friday at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

DES MOINES — They came in droves, more than 13,000 of them, from Iowa and all over the country, to hear 13 presidential candidates speak.

Many already have their candidate picked for the Iowa caucuses, the kick-off event in the process of selecting the nation’s next president. Those people could be seen inside and in the blocks surrounding Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines wearing campaign T-shirts, showing off light displays and banging together noise sticks.

Other people came with more open minds and with hopes that someone, one of those 13 candidates, would help them make up their tortured minds.

“I really hope to hear somebody knock my socks off,” said Janis Ketcher, an undecided Democratic voter from Des Moines.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s annual fall fundraiser, newly named the Liberty & Justice Celebration, had the “mini national convention feel” that state party chairman Troy Price had promised. More than 13,000 people attended the event, which likely will be the last major, multiple-candidate event with a crowd approaching this size before the Feb. 3 caucuses.

Thirteen of the 17 candidates left in the expansive field spoke at the event — former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race just hours before.

Polling has consistently showed a top tier of candidates featuring Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders.

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But there remains a significant slice of the Democratic caucus pie that is undecided or willing to have his or her mind changed.

Democrats like Janis Ketcher and her husband David. Both said they remain undecided, although they have some candidates they like. And both said the bottom line, what they’re most looking for, is someone who can defeat Republican President Donald Trump.

“There’s a number of them that I like, but every one of them I can identify pretty quickly some reasons why they would have a hard time beating Trump,” David Ketcher said. “That’s the bottom line.”

For candidates like Warren, Biden, Buttigieg and Sanders, the event was an opportunity to strengthen their position.

For the next tier of candidates, including Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and others, the event presented an opportunity for a breakout moment that could help vault them into the competition.

“It won’t be done tonight, but they’d better give their best,” former Iowa congressman and Democratic Party state chairman Dave Nagle said. “What’s important to me is that they understand that they’re in Iowa, and the last speaker will get as much attention as the first speaker.”

Three of the race’s leaders — Buttigieg, Biden and Warren — were among the event’s first speakers.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, offered a message of optimism and unification. He said it is important for Democrats to think about not only who can defeat Trump, but who can lead a politically divided nation.

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“We will fight when we need to fight, but ... the point is what lies on the other side of the fight,” Buttigieg said. “If talking about hope and belonging sounds optimistic for you at a time like this, fine. Call it optimistic. But do not call it naive.”

Biden, the former two-term vice president, portrayed himself as the candidate most qualified to face Trump and be ready to serve as president from the first day.

“I learned two things this week: (Russian president) Vladimir Putin doesn’t want me to be president, and Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee. I’m flattered,” Biden said. “(Trump) knows that I will beat him and beat him like a drum.”

“The next president is going to be commander-in-chief in a world in disarray,” Biden added. “There’s going to be no time for on-the-job training.”

Warren said the party must embrace and fight for “big ideas.” The U.S. senator from Massachusetts, who has taken the lead in recent polling on the race in Iowa, has faced criticism for her Medicare-for-all health care proposal.

“We need big ideas, and here’s the critical part: We need to be willing to fight for them,” Warren said. “It’s easy to give up on a big idea. But when we give up on big ideas, we give up on the people whose lives would be touched by those ideas, and those people are already in a fight.

“Anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we’re already in a fight is not going to win that fight,” Warren added. “Fear and complacency does not win elections. Hope and courage wins elections.”

Sanders gave his classic campaign speech and also described how he sees Democrats defeating Trump.

“In order to defeat Trump and generate the voter turnout that we need, we need an agenda that speaks to the pain of so many of our working families,” he said. “Good policy is good politics. Now is the time to stand with the working families of our country and end the outrageous level of greed and corruption that we see from the corporate elite. Now is the time to create a political movement and a government that works for all of us, not just super PACs and the 1 percent.”

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Andrew Yang said he is running for president because as a father and “patriot” he wants to be able to tell his children the country “loves” and “values” its children, and that those children will be all right.

The New York businessman also urged Iowans to use their authority as the state that starts the presidential nominating process.

“I don’t know if you know how much power is in this room tonight,” Yang said. “It’s the power to change the course of history.”

The Republican Party of Iowa in a news release called the Democrats’ 13-candidate event a “circus.”

“2020 Democrats are a bunch of contortionists bending over backwards to appease their far-left base,” state GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann said in a statement. “They will twist and bend their so-called principles any way necessary to stand out. But at the end of the day, the only thing these clowns have done is unite Iowans behind President Donald Trump.”

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