DES MOINES — Democratic presidential hopefuls continued their blitz of Iowa on Saturday, with most of the field converging here for a pair of thematically opposed events that underscored the tricky nature of campaigning in an emotionally turbulent week for the nation.
On one hand was the ongoing Iowa State Fair, a cheeky political rite of passage during which candidates tend to be judged as much on policy as their willingness to sample deep-fried delicacies on a stick.
Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) were among the nine candidates who stumped their way through the fair’s third day, attracting massive crowds of sweaty, sunburned and largely uncommitted voters who stood for hours in the blistering heat to hear the 2020 hopefuls make their pitch.
At the same time, a few miles up the road, 17 Democratic candidates participated in a more sober event: a day-long forum on gun violence hastily organized after the deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. Many candidates, including Warren and Harris, went straight from the gun control forum to the fair or vice versa, in what was one of the busiest weekends of the campaign here so far.
The Iowa State Fair has long been the unofficial kickoff of the fall campaign season, when candidates ramp up their voter outreach and campaign operations in advance of next year’s Feb. 3 caucuses. Traditionally, politicians spend their time taking lighthearted photos with Iowa’s famed butter cow and posing with barn animals.
This year, those moments were overtaken by the recent shootings.
The Democratic candidates were forced to refocus their messages — pressed by voters and reporters alike on new gun-control measures and President Trump’s perceived role in the El Paso attack, which appeared to be racially motived.
In recent days, the question du jour from the media contingent at the fair has been whether Trump is racist. Touring the fair Thursday, Biden snapped after being asked repeatedly by reporters whether he would join Warren and former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) in declaring Trump to be a white supremacist.
“You just want me to say the words so I sound like everyone else,” Biden replied, clearly irritated.
Pressed on the subject Saturday, Harris also took issue with the question.
“I will not participate in a conversation that simplifies this issue without recognizing the history, speaking truth about it, and recognizing that it happened when this guy was in the White House, and it will continue after this guy is in the White House,” Harris said. “He is certainly fanning the flames of hate. There’s no question about that, but if we’re going to have this conversation, let’s have it in a meaningful way.”
Candidates at the bottom of the polls have been forced to grapple with the question, as well. On Friday, former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.) was loudly and repeatedly heckled during his appearance at the fair’s political soapbox by a voter who demanded to know why the former congressman would not call Trump a white supremacist.
Delaney has said Trump enables white supremacy but has stopped short of labeling the president a white supremacist. “I actually don’t think there’s any difference,” Delaney told the man. “I think it’s awful. White supremacy and hate, white nationalism, the people who enable it are no different than the people who practice it.”
Unsatisfied, the fairgoer urged Delaney to drop out of the presidential race.
On Friday night, most of the Democratic field traveled to the far northern part of the state to speak at the annual Iowa Wing Ding, a party fundraiser held at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, the venue where Buddy Holly played his final show before he perished in a plane crash in a nearby cornfield. The event has become a pivotal stop for Democratic candidates over the years, including Barack Obama, whose 2007 appearance signaled his growing momentum in the 2008 campaign.
On the street outside the event, there was a circuslike atmosphere as campaigns competed to have the biggest presence. People waved signs and belted out chants as cars drove by. Inside, candidates smiled and posed for selfies.
But before the event began, the candidates paused for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the recent shootings. Onstage, most of them focused their remarks on trashing Trump and Republicans for their inaction on gun-control measures and for coddling white supremacy.
Booker invoked the “moral moment” facing the country and called on Democrats to help overcome Trump’s “darkness with our light.”
“This is a week where I will not let the slaughter of our fellow citizens just disappear within the next media cycle,” he said.
Some of the loudest applause of the night went to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who declared in a fiery speech that “white nationalism is a national security threat to this country.” He also appeared to offer a contrast to Biden’s stated belief that defeating Trump will solve the country’s most immediate problems, saying, “We can’t look like the party of ‘back to normal.’ ”
Speaking last, Biden devoted the entirety of his remarks to the urgent need to defeat Trump, calling him an “existential threat” to the future of the country. And unlike his prickly exchange with reporters at the fair, Biden seemed more willing to call out Trump for his racism. “Let’s call this what it is. This is white nationalism. This is white supremacy,” Biden declared.
Despite the solemn nature of the debate, candidates found time to engage in the kind of politicking the fair is known for. On Saturday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) hit the midway with her husband and kids. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the food area, vowing to be the first 2020 hopeful to sample the entire menu. Booker rode the Ferris wheel. Warren caused a traffic jam on the main concourse, posing for dozens of selfies. She autographed one woman’s copy of the Mueller Report. “I read this report,” she wrote, along with her signature.
And Harris, mobbed by at least 100 reporters and photographers, flipped pork chops at the Iowa Pork Producers Tent. The media scrum was so intense that few people could see the candidate behind the grill. Upon learning it was Harris, one man asked another if she’d won his support for grilling on such a hot day. “Maybe if she flips a pork chop down here into my hands,” he replied.