Other candidates continue to be factors: Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are the most obvious. People also talk about the possibility that someone well down in the polls could suddenly emerge. Right now, however, the focus increasingly is on Warren and Buttigieg.
Warren is widely regarded as the candidate to beat in Iowa. Her organization is judged as the best in the field, and her disciplined campaign style has helped to provide the edge she enjoys.
One prominent Democrat closely monitoring the campaign, who asked not to be identified to offer a candid assessment, said Warren has “the best field organization seen in the state since Obama in 2008.” Another longtime Democratic Party activist, who talks with many campaigns and also did not want to be identified, said, “She’s killing it here in Iowa.”
Buttigieg started slowly: His campaign initially consisted of four people, and his organization was late to get moving. Despite successes, the candidacy of the 37-year-old mayor of the city of 100,000 continues to face skepticism about its long-term durability, particularly over his ability to attract support from African Americans.
But in Iowa, he has been rising rapidly of late. His team is upbeat, and Buttigieg’s sense of confidence was on display in an interview filmed late in the week with journalist John Heilemann of Showtime’s “The Circus,” the full contents of which will be on the air Sunday night.
“It’s coming down to the two of us,” Buttigieg told Heilemann. “Obviously there are a lot of candidates and a lot of things can happen, but I think that as that happens, the contrasts become clearer. The contrasts are real.”
Buttigieg’s rivals are likely to regard statements like that as some mixture of arrogance and audacity, as the mayor tries to persuade voters that he is the strongest alternative to Biden on the center left. The more he talks like that the more he will draw scrutiny and fire from the others, just as Warren has been drawing criticism the more she has risen both here and nationally.
Buttigieg was the first speaker Friday night, a position that came with risks but also possible rewards. He took advantage of it to deliver a thematic rationale for his candidacy and for the approach that he argues can put the Democrats in the best position to defeat President Trump a year from this week. As he spoke, the strength of his growing organization was on display at the end of the arena, cheering him on.
Buttigieg began with general principles. He did not mention the name of any of the other candidates, but he didn’t need to. The most pointed parts of his speech aimed directly at Warren.
“I will not waver from my commitment to our values or back down from the boldness of our ideas,” he said. “But I also will not tire from the effort to include everyone in this future we are trying to build — progressives, moderates and Republicans of conscience who are ready for a change.”
Then he pivoted toward Warren. “We will fight when we must fight,” he said, “but I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point. The point is what lies on the other side of the fight. And what lies on the other side of that fight is the hope of an American experience defined not by exclusion but by belonging. That is what we are here to deliver.”
Then Warren’s turn came to step onstage at the Wells Fargo Arena. It was as if she had heard Buttigieg’s claim that the race is narrowing. Her big smile and sunny waves to crowd soon gave way to a sharpened rhetorical defense of her liberal initiatives, all built on the pledge of “big structural change” — a posture that critics in the party fear could prove too ideologically divisive to attract moderate and swing voters in a general election.
“Anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we are already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight,” Warren said. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight is not going to win that fight. And anyone who comes on this stage and tells you to dream small and give up early is not going to lead our party to victory.”
She continued: “This is a time of crisis, and media pundits, Washington insiders, even some people in our own party don’t want to admit it. They think that running some vague campaign that nibbles around the edges is somehow safe. . . . Fear and complacency does not win elections. Hope and courage wins elections. I’m not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone. I’m running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families. I’m running a campaign from the heart.”
If Warren had spoken those words a few months ago, everyone would have assumed they were aimed at Biden, who entered the nominating contest as the front-runner and whose advisers continue to say, despite slippage, that he remains well-positioned to emerge with the nomination by the time the primaries and caucuses are over. But on Friday night, Warren’s words appeared aimed more at Buttigieg.
Biden delivered a workmanlike version of his stump speech at an event that traditionally rewards those with a fresh and aggressive message. He neither stumbled in any significant way nor rose to the moment. His team is braced for potential losses here and in New Hampshire.
Sanders, the other candidate poised to win delegates here, gave a speech that Iowa activists have heard since his 2016 candidacy. He has his following, but it’s smaller than it was four years ago. Other Democrats who roused the arena on Friday — Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) — still must translate moments into movement.
With three months remaining until the Iowa caucuses, the battlefield remains fluid. History says it will stay that way until that night in February when people finally make their selections known and the nomination race begins in earnest. But Friday’s dinner provided a sense of the stakes, the contrasts and the choices for Democrats in Iowa and those in the states that follow.