Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) speaks during a town hall meeting in Charles City, Iowa, on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

IOWA CITY, — Moments into her final town hall of the short September recess, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) asked if her audience had heard the news: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had declared his firm opposition to Cassidy-Graham, the GOP’s last attempt at a “repeal and replacement” of the Affordable Care Act.

“I’ll be honest, it seems unlikely that we’ll be voting on this,” said Ernst.

A crowd of hundreds, in one of the University of Iowa’s largest rooms, roared with applause. But for another hour, Ernst took questions on the future of the ACA, with one questioner demanding she take a position — she had been “leaning yes” on the failing bill.

With just eight days to go before Sept. 30, the deadline after which Republicans will lose the ability to pass an ACA replacement with a simple majority, activists working to save the law were markedly cautious. Days of action — Saturday rallies organized by MoveOn, Monday rallies by Indivisible — would continue. So would calls to senators. Having been caught unaware in May and last week, when Republicans revived “Trumpcare,” activists said they would keep pounding until the deadline had passed.

“You don’t want to leave anything to chance,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn. “If more senators come out in opposition to the bill this week, that makes it less likely that they can credibly come back and support another repeal vote. It needs to be totally clear to them that electoral disaster would come from keeping their horrible campaign promise.”

The vast protest movement that the left built after 2016 took nearly a week to focus on Cassidy-Graham; before that, many groups had began focusing on pushing a Dream Act through Congress. At a Friday rally with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, which had been planned before Cassidy-Graham gained momentum, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) thanked McCain for his statement, then encouraged protesters to keep working.

“Do everything you can, get the word out all over this country, to tell them that no Republican should vote for this,” he said.

Sanders, who was facing some criticism for agreeing to debate the GOP bill’s sponsor on Monday night, benefited from the impression that the bill would fail. But to ensure that failure, activists were planning a two-pronged strategy — continuing to pressure Republicans against backing the bill, and thanking the Republicans who had promised to oppose it.

“The events in Arizona are going ahead, but they’re going to be thank-you rallies,” said Wikler. “For everybody else, they can expect a 30-ring circus of protests if they do go ahead and do this.”