Nation & World

Democratic forum in Cedar Rapids a chance to break out

With 19 hopefuls on stage, activists get first chance to compare

2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination of 21 file photos (L-R top row): U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Michael Bennet. (L-R middle row): Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, U.S. Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (L-R bottom row): Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Gov. Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Mayor Wayne Messam, and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. REUTERS/Files
2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination of 21 file photos (L-R top row): U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Michael Bennet. (L-R middle row): Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, U.S. Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. (L-R bottom row): Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Gov. Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Mayor Wayne Messam, and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. REUTERS/Files

CEDAR RAPIDS — Nineteen Democratic presidential hopefuls talking to about 1,500 Iowa Democratic activists this afternoon will mark the unofficial kickoff to the summer caucus season.

“It’s going to be a pretty wild event,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price predicted. The party’s sold-out Hall of Fame Celebration starting at 2 p.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids will be the largest multicandidate event of the 2020 election cycle to date.

“Each candidate is looking for something different,” Price said. Some will look for a breakout moment, others will be speaking to their base. The Hall of Fame will be a chance for campaigns to flex their organizing strength — to demonstrate they can deliver their supporters, which is the key to caucus success.

That means candidates better bring their “A” games, according to Democratic activist Sally Pederson, who served as then-Gov. Tom Vilsack’s lieutenant for eight years from 1999 to 2007.

“Because you get to compare them one right after another,” said Pederson. “It’s like a job interview process, you know, and I think there are going to be some that you say, ‘Oh, I’m going to interview these five again and now I’m not so interested in these.’

“It’s not going to be the same for everybody,” she added. “But I think there will be enough of that that there’ll be some (candidates) that it will just get much, much harder for them to get an audience.”

Pederson’s right, Price said, but he doesn’t think it’s a make-or-break moment for candidates.

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“There’s still plenty of time left,” he said. In fact, after Sunday there will be 239 days until the Feb. 3, 2020, caucuses.

However, so far the conversation has been between the most active, involved Democrats. Now more people are paying more attention.

“So it could either narrow down the field or put new people on their radar,” Price said. “There are so many great choices that people won’t make up minds quickly.”

Hosting 19 candidates — and Democrats hoped there would be more — demonstrates that Iowa Democrats take their role of vetting the candidates seriously, Price said. It’s all part of Iowans, who host the first event in the presidential nominating process, sizing up the candidates.

“This is part of that, of hearing their vision, hearing them make the argument why they are the best person to lead us forward,” he said. Democrats not only will be listening to the candidates’ pitches on broad national issues, “but to also see how they talk about issues affecting the state of Iowa” such as climate change, health care and trade, Price said.

For some of the candidates who have joined the race more recently, today will be an opportunity introduce themselves to activists, leaders of local Democratic parties and others who will spread the word.

For Bernie Sanders, he said no introduction is necessary.

“People in Iowa know me, know that I’m looking to the future,” the Vermont senator said Friday during a phone call from Burlington, Vt.

His focus likely will be on defeating President Donald Trump — “a formidable opponent” — and making the case that he’s the person most likely to score a Democratic victory in 2020.

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To defeat “the most dangerous president in modern history,” Democrats must “run an exciting, energetic campaign that brings millions of people into the process,” according to Sanders. The nominee has to “speak to the real issues on their minds … to be bold.”

Sunday will mark the 29th campaign trip former Maryland Rep. John Delaney has made to Iowa. He has visited all 99 counties.

“So a lot of people will have met him and know a lot about of him,” said his campaign spokeswoman, Monica Biddix.

Like Sanders, Delaney will showcase why he’s the best person to defeat Trump, she said. Part of that will be differentiating himself from other candidates. Delaney has been pretty clear in saying he doesn’t embrace some of the so-called socialist agenda items of other candidates.

Multicandidate events give candidates an opportunity “to be specific about policies and what they will do as president,” Biddix said. “It’s a good way to differentiate themselves … and give likely caucusgoers an opportunity to focus on individual policies.”

Noticeably absent from the party fundraiser will be former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We were hoping the vice president would join us,” Price said, “but we get it.”

The Biden campaign said he had a long-standing prior commitment. He also skipped a Democratic gathering last weekend in California.

Pederson doesn’t fault him for skipping the event because he has become the focus of examination and some “pummeling” since moving into the perceived front-runner position. Biden plans to be in Eastern Iowa on Tuesday, which Pederson said was a good scheduling move.

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“He needs to be here but I understand why he’s not putting himself of the stage with the others,” she said. “Obviously, Iowans want to see him but I think because of the position he’s in he doesn’t gain anything by being there” Sunday.

With or without Biden on the stage, the Hall of Fame will provide an opportunity for Iowa caucus-goers to begin to narrow the field of candidates. The winnowing may start with Sunday’s Hall of Fame event and pick up steam over the summer, Pederson said. Democrats will have opportunities to see the candidates on the campaign trail as well as in two televised party debates later in June, a multicandidate Progress Iowa Corn Feed on July 14 and the Polk County Steak Fry on Sept. 21.

“I think there will be some people after that can’t really keep going,” Pederson said.

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

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