In this edition: The many risks of going Iowa Negative, the slow-mo Biden-Trump showdown and the final countdown before the debate culling.

I am jealous that James Hohmann got to do the rundown of campaign entrance music before me, and this is The Trailer.

DUBUQUE, Iowa — As she waited for Kamala Harris to arrive at a downtown art space here, Dianne Roche described how the 2016 election tested her friendships. A close friend, she said, had grown so frustrated after the end of the primary that she did not vote for Hillary Clinton. Instead, she wrote in the name of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president.

“I was a Bernie supporter last time, but I do not appreciate the negativity and ‘only Bernie’ attitude,” said Roche, 71, a retired teacher. “I’m afraid that we’re going to wind up where we were last time — people not coming out to vote if their candidate’s not the nominee.”

Sanders still made Roche’s top-five shortlist in the caucuses, joined by former vice president Joe Biden; Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Harris, the California senator. But her nervousness, that another primary could lurch into bitterness and protest-voting, is reflected in the angst of Iowa Democrats. Many of them have a friend, or a relative, or someone they met during the last caucuses who ended up blanking their presidential ballot after the 2016 primary.

The tougher rhetoric of the past few weeks, with some candidates attacking their rivals as unelectable or misguided, is not out of the ordinary for a presidential campaign. But after watching Hillary Clinton lose, any attack, fair or otherwise, triggers memories of the worst political thing that had happened in Iowa Democrats’ lifetimes.

“The negativity was really apparent at my caucus last time,” said Erin VanLaningham, 45, a college professor here. “It's still pretty residual in this primary.”

Already, two weeks before the candidates meet at their first debates, their theories about negative campaigning are becoming clear. Sanders, while not mentioning any other candidates by name, now regularly attacks “middle-ground politics” in a way that unmistakably refers to Joe Biden. 

“I understand that there are some well-intentioned Democrats and candidates who believe that the best way forward is a 'middle ground' strategy that antagonizes no one, that stands up to nobody and that changes nothing,” Sanders said at Sunday's Iowa Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids. “In my view, that approach is not just bad public policy, but it is a failed political strategy that I fear could end up with the reelection of Donald Trump.”

That line did not play well in the room, a cavernous convention hall filled with donors, elected officials and supporters of rival candidates. But a number of candidates who had not engaged with their rivals until recently used their time onstage to attack the Hyde Amendment, an approach designed to remind Democrats of how Biden had supported the ban on taxpayer funding for abortion until changing his position last week.

“It is not going negative to say that guy decided to change his position after four decades, with reasoning that just didn't make sense to me,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a gaggle with reporters before his speech. “Suddenly, the rights of women were under attack? The rights of women have been under attack for decades. I think if he had come forward and said, 'Hey, you know my previous position is what I believe, but it's not working for me politically,' people would have admired it more.”

Biden has taken this on with brio. At a Monday night fundraiser in Washington, the former vice president mentioned (but did not name) Andrew Yang, the only candidate on the Cedar Rapids stage who had criticized Biden, by name, for not attending the event.

“One of my competitors criticized me for not going to Iowa to talk for five minutes,” Biden said. “My granddaughter was graduating. It was my daughter’s birthday. I would skip inauguration for that.” Democrats attacking Democrats, he said, “would increase the chances that this fella will win,” referring to Trump.

And the risks of attacking Biden, or anyone else, are well-known in Iowa. Democrats still talk about the lead-up to the 2004 caucuses, when then-Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt focused his fire on then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Gephardt, already fading, collapsed into fourth place; Dean ran third and never recovered, in part because of being dragged down by Gephardt. Four years later, in the Republican primary, Mike Huckabee bizarrely gathered reporters in Des Moines to show them a negative ad that he would not be running against Mitt Romney, who was spending big to cut into the former Arkansas governor's lead. 

“I'm taking a risk here,” said Huckabee, who was leading Romney in the polls and would end up routing him by 9.2 points, helping to set up an eventual primary victory for John McCain.

But it's the 2016 case that's more immediate and relevant to Iowa Democrats. Sanders, who did not attack Clinton by name in any ads, did run a pre-caucus ad that warned of candidates who “say it is okay to take millions from big banks and then tell him what to do.” It was widely seen as a jab at Clinton. Trump adopted the rhetoric, but not the content, in his own anti-Clinton campaign; Democrats spread the blame around for what happened afterward.

In the state's 2016 general election exit poll, Clinton won just 24 percent of voters who viewed both her and Trump unfavorably; 31 percent of those voters picked third-party or write-in candidates. While Clinton won voters under the age of 25, 13 percent of those voters opted for a third party — and many Democrats know the voters who stayed home.

Biden is not the only friendly-fire target in the primary. On Sunday, as they'd done a week earlier at the California state Democratic convention, both former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and former Maryland congressman John Delaney used their time onstage to criticize Medicare-for-all, though they didn’t name-drop the senator who introduced the plan to the Senate.

But both did so in softer tones than they had in California, where they were drowned out by booing; a Delaney staffer explained that the candidate “read the room” in Iowa and opted not to go negative. Only after the speech did Delaney release a statement calling out Sanders and attacking Medicare-for-all as “bad policy and bad politics.” Apart from the Hyde flip-flop story, most Democrats have resisted attacking Biden in anything but the most decoder-ring ways, with references to generational change or breaking from the past.

Most Democrats have also resisted attacking Sanders. In Dubuque, Harris brushed off a question about the senator's planned speech on how “democratic socialism” was the only effective response to authoritarianism by saying she was a “proud Democrat.” Warren, asked the same question one day earlier in Waterloo, laughed and said she “hadn't seen the speech.” (Sanders is delivering it in Washington on Wednesday).

And on Tuesday, as they gathered to see Biden's return to Iowa in Ottumwa, voters said they pined for a primary where Democrats wouldn't tear each other apart.

“I'd like to see it stay positive; I don't know, practically, if it can happen,” said Dick Fenton, 74, an antique seller who'd driven to the event with his wife. “We don't need to implode as Democrats when we've got Trump sitting out there.”

When Biden took the stage, he referred again to how “one of my competitors” had criticized him for skipping the weekend event. But his competitors, he said, were good people.

READING LIST

"Trump or a Democrat? Eastern Iowa ponders its presidential choice,” by Jenna Johnson

Iowa Democrats see all sorts of reasons voters who bolted for Trump in 2016 should be coming back. But many aren’t doing it.

“Tulsi Gabbard had a very strange childhood,” by Kerry Howley

The Hawaii Democrat doesn’t talk much about her religious upbringing and affiliations, which have never been as comprehensively explained as they are here.

“The goal for 2020 underdogs in Iowa: Become the Joe Biden alternative,” by Sean Sullivan

How Democrats spent the weeks when the former vice president was elsewhere.

“In 1991, Joe Biden was skeptical Clarence Thomas would be extreme on abortion,” by Amanda Terkel

Abortion rights activists are angry about more than the treatment of Anita Hill; they think the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee was also naive.

“When Joe Biden was the candidate of the young,” by Jim Newell

A look back at Biden's first major campaign, when he was the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the early 1970s — in youth, if not policy.

ON THE TRAIL

OTTUMWA, Iowa — Joe Biden’s campaign was raring for a fight. 

For days, Democrats knew that the former vice president would be in Iowa the very same time as President Trump — and that every other candidate would not. The coverage of a “showdown” between the Democratic poll leader and the president began last week, and Biden’s campaign ramped it up Tuesday morning, sending reporters the full text of a speech he’d be delivering in Davenport, with fresh attacks on the president’s trade policy. One cable news network previewed a Biden “evisceration” of Trump.

The buildup, and a ground game strengthened by new Iowa hires, helped Biden pull 250 voters to an event in this small city. It also displayed the Biden paradox: He’s the Democrat who talks the most about Trump but seems the least interested in throwing punches at him.

“When he calls people the names he calls them? No president has done that, for God's sake,” Biden said Tuesday, after telling a group of Greenpeace protesters that their sign giving a “B” to his climate plan was unfair.

“At the D-Day ceremony, it was astounding to me that he was tweeting at people, the mayor of London. He found time to tweet at Bette Midler. For real! Not a joke.” (The tweets were both sent during Trump's recent trip to Europe though not at the ceremony honoring the 75th anniversary of D-Day.)

In his first visit to Iowa in more than a month, Biden spent roughly half of a 23-minute speech talking about the president, repeating his mantra that ousting Trump in 2020 would make him an “aberration.” He went more than five minutes without an applause line, getting it only when he said, as president, he would restore respect for a free press.

“We’re at a moment when we have to restate our constitutional norms in our country,” Biden said. “Some say it’s an old-fashioned way of doing this. Well if it’s old-fashioned, man, we’re in real trouble.”

Biden's approach could hardly differ more from Trump's; the president lives on attacking his enemies, while Biden doesn't want to have any. The president gamely previewed the “showdown” with a few choice quotes to reporters before flying to Iowa.

“He’s a different guy,” Trump said. “He looks different than he used to, he acts different than he used to — he’s even slower than he used to be.”

Like many Trump attacks, the power was supposed to come from a truth nobody said in public. But Biden was different than he used to be; it was part of his appeal. He was introduced here by a woman he had comforted when her husband died, and he started his own remarks by talking about grief, until he was interrupted by an antiabortion protester.

The Ottumwa remarks, which drew on much of what Biden was going to say in Davenport, were mostly about Trump and how voters needed to restore the norms the president was busting. Biden spent around six minutes discussing his policies, which had not changed since his last Iowa visit — closing tax loopholes, using the savings to pay for free community college, protecting the Affordable Care Act, providing better access to child care, and preventing too many businesses from requiring noncompete agreements of their employees.

“There's a lot more that I want to say,” Biden added, “but I've taken too much of your time already.” It was a different approach from the one candidates with longer speeches and Q&A sessions had taken in Iowa.

The crowd largely stuck around after the speech, as Biden took time and care talking to whoever could get close to him. Democrats were happy that he was so different from Trump and still figuring out how the contrast between Biden and Trump might play out.

“I'm so anxious to get back to normalcy that I'll do whatever it takes,” said Andrew Lietzow, 67, the director of the Iowa Landlord Association. “He's passionate, but he's not at the excitement and enthusiasm level. He's been 76 years on this earth, so I don't think he'll have quite the energy of some candidates. But he has personal charisma, not that Trump charisma, with large groups.”

POLL WATCH

Do you like having all these choices in the 2020 primary? (CNN/Des Moines Register, 433 possible caucusgoers)

Several should drop out - 47%
Most should drop out - 27%
Like all the possibilities - 18%
One or two should drop out - 5%

It's not just you: The voters with the power to thin out the Democratic primary would (politely) prefer the candidates to do it for them. It's accurate to say that 23 Democrats are running for president, but in Iowa, it's clear that fewer than a dozen are being seriously considered, right now, by most Democratic activists. The rest of those activists are a little irritated that two dozen Democrats want their time and attention. They are ready for the swollen cast of a Robert Altman movie to reduce down to something manageable, like the suspects in an Agatha Christie novel.

Support for letting transgender people serve in the military, by party (PRRI, 1100 adults)

Democrats - 78%
Independents - 66%
Republicans - 47%

One of the most popular self-flagellating experiences Democrats gave themselves after 2016 was a panic about “identity politics” and whether a focus on the issues affecting minorities alienated white working-class voters. The longtime chair of the party in Ohio's Mahoning County insisted that Democrats had stopped talking to workers and grown obsessed with whether transgender people could use their preferred bathrooms. But the polling on transgender rights has moved fast, and here, a major Trump win for social conservatives might be yet another political mistake.

2020 Democratic primary in Massachusetts (Suffolk, 600 voters)

Undecided - 42%
Joe Biden - 22%
Elizabeth Warren - 10%
Pete Buttigieg - 8%
Bernie Sanders - 6%
Kamala Harris - 5%
Seth Moulton - 1%
Cory Booker - 1%
Andrew Yang - 1%
Beto O'Rourke - 1%

Massachusetts has been a competitive state in every recent Democratic primary, rich in delegates and positioned not long after the first four states vote. It's a good example of a place where voters have not been asked to tune in, except when the Boston Globe ran an editorial urging Warren not to run for president. And, well, not many voters have tuned in. Warren joins the exclusive club of candidates who do not lead the polls in their home states. (Fellow members are Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro.) Sanders has a fraction of his support from 2016; almost twice as many voters are undecided as support the current leader in the polls.

IN THE STATES

Virginia. It’s primary day, with relatively low turnout expected but a few big races that could reshape the parties — ahead of the year’s only competitive election for a state legislature.

The major liberal priority is in the 35th state Senate district, where Dick Saslaw, the party’s floor leader, is being challenged by Yasmine Taeb, a Democratic activist who’d be the first female Muslim senator in the state. Winning the primary is tantamount to winning the safely blue district, in the D.C. suburbs. Three other liberals are trying to oust incumbents, while Del. Lee Carter, a high-profile member of Democratic Socialists of America, is being challenged by a former Republican with business backing.

The Republican race to watch is in the 24th district, which runs from the outskirts of Charlottesville toward the West Virginia border. Conservative activist Tina Frietas is challenging Sen. Emmett Hanger over the senator’s support of Medicaid expansion. The winner is heavily favored to hold the seat.

New York. Tiffany Caban, the candidate for Queens district attorney who’d be the latest in a string of reformers to take over key elected law enforcement jobs, was endorsed by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. That’s not going to make as many national headlines as Caban’s endorsement, last week, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). But Stringer and Ocasio-Cortez have a record of intervening on behalf of left-wing insurgents who win local races, backing a number of challengers who broke a conservative Democratic bloc in the state Senate.

DEBATE SEASON

In 24 hours, we'll know half the answer to the most confusing question in the Democratic primaries: Who made the debate stage? We won't know the other half, about which 10 candidates will be stacked together on the first night and which will be put on the second night, until Friday. 

In the meantime, two schools of complaint have grown up: The Democrats who tomorrow are likely to get cut out of the lineup and the Democrats who want to badger the DNC into staging a climate debate. The fight over the climate debate will keep going; the fight over the last debate slots is almost over.

The first school is small, consisting of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. Bullock, who thought he had earned a spot last week, learned that the DNC would stop counting The Washington Post's open-ended poll, meaning he was most likely out.

“It's probably unlikely that I'll be on that first debate stage,” Bullock told reporters in Cedar Rapids on Sunday. “I'll be continuing to work on going out and listening to people.”

In other words — words that could change after Wednesday — Bullock was not as interested in making a show about the debate standards as he was about using any extra time he had offstage to campaign. Instead of days of debate prep and 48 hours in Miami, he could go literally anywhere else.

De Blasio, meanwhile, was insisting that he could make the debates based on public polling. If three credible polls said he was at 1 percent or above, he was in, and he would see what the DNC did about that.

“Just look at the record so far,” he said after a breakfast meeting with Democrats in Waterloo. “There are six national polls that put me at the qualifying level. A number of candidates don't have that. ... In terms of the debate, by the standards the DNC has set, we qualify.”

Moulton has taken a more Bullock-like approach: acceptance. Last week, the congressman told a conservative radio host that he would not make it to Miami and that would be fine. “Folks are hardly going to get a chance to speak,” he said.

And Gravel, who is not campaigning actively, was putting everything on the second debate. If the debate standards were not changed again, he would need just 65,000 donors, by early July, to get a slot, assuming no other candidates also hit that mark and polled higher. His best shot at reentry: if a few candidates drop out in the next 30 days.

2020

Julián Castro. He visited Flint, Mich., while most of his rivals were in Iowa; he emerged from there with a plan to remove lead from places where people lived, starting with a presidential task force.

Steve Bullock. He stayed in Iowa after the Hall of Fame gathering to begin a “fighting for rural Iowa” tour, his second trip around the state in his (so far) brief campaign.

Kirsten Gillibrand. She reached 65,000 donors over the weekend, firming up an (already likely secure) spot in the first presidential debate.

Joe Biden. He announced a new group of endorsements on his visit to Iowa, including two state legislators.

Kamala Harris. She’ll head back to Nevada for campaign stops Friday and Saturday.
 

COUNTDOWN

... one day until the cutoff for the first Democratic debates
... four days until the Black Economic Forum in Charleston
... 10 days until Jim Clyburn Fish Fry
... 15 days until the first Democratic debates