In this edition: Republican counterprogramming in Iowa, the return of big dark money to Democratic politics, and debate rules that made everyone angry again.

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COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — A few hours before the president would rally thousands of supporters in Des Moines, a few days before Senate Republicans would probably vote for his acquittal in Washington, Vice President Pence came to Iowa to talk about Bernie Sanders.

“I see in the latest polls that the leading candidate is a socialist that I served with in the Congress of the United States,” Pence told around 200 Republican voters at an events center here. “It’s amazing to think of it.” 

Pence was there to organize Republicans and assure them that their version of reality, obscured by the Democrats who had taken over their TV screens, was still correct. The Trump campaign’s counterprogramming, which nudged Democrats off Iowa’s front pages for a day, was a helpful preview of what awaited Democrats when their marathon was over. 

President Trump’s remarks could stretch past the 60-minute mark, dovetailing into subjects that bothered the president when he flicked on a TV. Pence was more dutiful, delivering the message that advertising would pound into voters for 10 months: Four years of prosperity and military victory could be undone by “socialism,” whether it came from Sanders or from one of the 10 remaining Democrats who did not call themselves socialists.

“We hear things like open borders, the Green New Deal, they want your guns, government-run health care, abortions any time,” said Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, revving up the crowd before Pence spoke. “And their absolute favorite, favorite word is …”

She paused for a moment. A voter shouted “Free!”

“Free!” said Reynolds. “Free, free, free. It is not sustainable. It is not obtainable. It's ridiculous. Those ideas aren’t Iowan.”

Pence’s rallies in Sioux City and Council Bluffs were smaller than Trump’s, quieter and without much flash. In the morning, he mobilized “Evangelicals for Trump,” and in the afternoon, he revved up “Veterans for Trump.” But there was overlap, such as a crowd-pleaser about Democrats being forced to “impeach this president because they cannot defeat these president.” 

Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had held her first Iowa event in the same venue as the “Veterans for Trump” rally, one year earlier, and brought out roughly twice as many people. But the overwhelming mood in Council Bluffs this week was pride. 

There had been years when the Democrats posed a threat, or a figure such as Hillary Clinton loomed, ready to unmake America. In conversations around the rally, Trump voters dismissed every one of the president’s challengers, often with a tone of pity. 

“I never liked Hillary, but she was better than any of these people,” said Christy Ballenger, 50.

“Elizabeth Warren can’t tell the truth about anything,” said Judy Leigh, 70. “Bernie Sanders is too far left. Buttigieg doesn’t have any experience — he can’t even run his own town. I feel sorry for Biden. He’s older than us, and he already has memory loss. President Trump is amazing for his age. I’d love to be that sharp.”

No candidate instilled real worry, but “socialism” did. The voters, who skewed toward late middle age, repeatedly worried that younger people would be lulled into supporting “everything for free,” and were concerned about how to change that.

Pence's approach was to pile up economic numbers and wins that made reelection a no-brainer, if Republicans would only “tell your neighbors” once they boarded the shuttles that took them out of the secured event. Trump tended to say that he had raised military pay more than any president; Pence said diplomatically that he had signed the biggest raise in a decade, which was true. He shared a story of a man thanking him, on a Florida beach, for an economy that had doubled his earnings.

With Republicans uncertain about which Democrat would emerge from the caucuses, and the primary, Pence left some traps for anyone who would run on a restoration of the Obama years. There would be “no more Benghazis” under Trump, no more Iran deals, no more NAFTA. (Like the president, Pence sliced Democrats out of the story of the USMCA trade negotiation.) There were lesser-known risks of a backslide, too, as Pence warned in a story about “a Bible that had been carried in World War II” that liberals sued to remove from a Manchester, N.H., hospital.

“You know, the truth is to come as no surprise, because under the last administration, the V.A. hospitals had made it a practice to remove Bibles and even banned Christmas carols in an effort to be politically correct,” Pence said. “But under this administration, we've taken decisive action. V.A. hospitals will never be religion-free zones under President Trump. I have a message for the VA hospital in New Hampshire: The Bible stays.”

The Bible in question had not been carried in the war; it was a gift to a former POW when he returned home. But the moral of the story was that while the president could keep Americans safe and prosperous, there were more threats to conservative values every day. The Democratic candidates' policies were absurd on their face, obscuring the outrages they would unleash if they won the election, the message went. 

Even more than Trump's speech to a much larger crowd, in a much larger city, Pence was setting up the party's 2020 argument. In a strong economy, there was no reason to replace the president; replacing the president would mean emboldening people who would destroy it. 

READING LIST

"‘Too blue to bother’: In Iowa, suburban Democrats are trying to stage a political takeover," by Robert Samuels

As Iowa gets redder, its fastest-growing areas get deep blue.

"Did Warren get her ad campaign wrong in Iowa?" by Natasha Korecki

Why waiting until October to buy TV time may have been a mistake.

"Trump and Republicans join forces to attack Biden ahead of the Iowa caucuses," by Toluse Olorunnipa

A pretty successful effort to "bracket" the Democratic contest.

"Bernie Sanders leads Donald Trump in polls, even when you remind people he’s a socialist," by Matthew Yglesias

Did Republicans cry wolf on the "s" word?

ON THE TRAIL

DES MOINES — On Thursday afternoon, a coalition of left-wing grass-roots groups announced a joint effort to support Bernie Sanders. Within hours, Pete Buttigieg's campaign was denouncing yet more “dark money groups” trying to swing the election and aid “Donald Trump's agenda.”

“We can’t fall behind on our fundraising efforts when Bernie Sanders’ dark money groups are stockpiling hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Buttigieg's campaign wrote in an email to donors. “Senator Bernie Sanders has NINE — yes, you read that correctly — nine Super PACs banding together to raise money, organize, and advertise on behalf of his campaign.”

It was a heated reaction to “People Power for Bernie, nine groups that had already endorsed Sanders for president and by no means considered themselves super PACs, a term of campaign law that did not apply to them. The groups were actually nonprofits, some with a tax status that does not require them to release their donors. 

In the liberal politics of 2020, it was not a scandal when Democratic Socialists of America endorsed Bernie Sanders; it was a scandal when DSA joined groups such as the Sunrise Movement and the Center for Popular Democracy Action for a murky independent expenditure.

Mayor Buttigieg knows we aren't a super PAC, said Derrick Crowe, the spokesman for People's Action, another group in the coalition. “We know that because he spoke at our forum in Iowa in September and actively sought our endorsement. He should immediately correct the record and tell his supporters the truth. 

Buttigieg, the Democrat who has probably taken the most heat over his fundraising, has actually resisted any outside help from PACs or “dark money” groups. That is not the case for two of his closest competitors. As the Iowa campaign winds down, some Democrats and liberals have made peace with the reality of 2020: There will be “dark money,” and there will be super PACs. They just hope much of it will benefit them.

Any Democrat was going to enter the election with the aid of Priorities USA, the super PAC founded by supporters of Barack Obama in 2011 that is already on the air in swing states. Just today, a coalition of labor unions and liberal groups, focused on topics including women's rights (Ultraviolet) and civil rights (the NAACP), announced that they are pooling resources into “Organizing Together,” with the ambition of putting staff on the ground across competitive states. It's getting money from the Strategic Victory Fund, which does not have to disclose donors.

Long before that, a pledge many Democrats took — to not have a super PAC — had already broken down. Joe Biden's resilience in Iowa is in part because of Unite the Country, a super PAC that some independent supporters founded late in 2019, after Biden stopped waving them off. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. To speak to the middle class, we need to reject the super PAC system, Biden tweeted in April, when his campaign began. Having once taken credit for Sanders's refusal to allow a super PAC, Biden waved in a group that has spent millions of dollars to prop him up in Iowa, from donors who are not yet known but who raised $7.6 million in less than three months.

Biden flipped on super PACs after the Trump campaign began running ads in Iowa, unanswered, accusing him of corruption. But he has not taken a hit for that, and Sanders has not received serious blowback after multiple nonprofit groups began spending money for him. Having supported the 2016 creation of Our Revolution, a 501(c)4 group that does not have to reveal the names of big donors, Sanders has gently suggested that it reveal those donors without distancing himself.

Like Biden, Sanders's allies have defended their spending by pointing out that the other guys threw the first punch. Buttigieg previously cried foul about Organize for Justice, another coalition of left-wing groups, which has been running digital ads against both him and Biden. But in defending their decisions and spending, the left-leaning groups point back to Buttigieg's traditional, disclosed donors — the scandal, as they see it, is that he is supported by dozens of billionaires, while Sanders refuses a donation from anyone with that kind of money.

“Biden and Buttigieg have made clear that they are more interested in co-governing and acting out the interests of big money and corporations by being the top two candidates with the most billionaire donors,” Jack Reardon, whose Iowa CCI Action Fund joined that ad buy, told HuffPost.

“Put money in my wine cave, Peter,” tweeted Howie Stanger, the chief operating officer of the Sunrise Movement, another group amused to hear itself called a “super PAC” as it works to elect Sanders.

IMPEACHMENT WATCH

The latest on the impeachment of President Trump

AD WATCH

Elizabeth Warren, "She Can Win." The Massachusetts senator was the last of the better-funded candidates — the ones who raised more than $10 million per quarter — to go on air in Iowa. She focused instead on digital advertising and earned media, followed by a blitz of fresh messaging at the very end of the race. This is one of four Warren spots now in circulation, arguing for her electability, and it stars a voter who shows off a picture of himself with a gigantic TRUMP sign to prove that he's switched teams. "To people who say that a woman can't win, I say, nonsense," he says.

Amy Klobuchar, "It's About You." The Minnesota senator is closing with a pair of ads that complement each other: one that emphasizes her visit to all 99 Iowa counties and argues she can "unite the party" and one that reintroduces her as an antidote to Trump. "We have a president who thinks everything is about him," she says, before laying out agenda items ("your health care, your security") with no specifics. (Those are in a previous ad, the one in which she runs out of time to name all her priorities.

Mike Bloomberg, "The Only Job." When the former mayor began exploring a run for president, Republicans and some Democrats pointed out that he had not spoken out much against Trump until 2016 and that he had previously signed off on Trump's purchase of a golf course. This 15-second spot, designed for Fox News, consists of photos that show Trump stumbling around a course, and Bloomberg joking that running a golf course is "the only job" he's qualified for.

POLL WATCH

Have you seen an ad for this candidate? (NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 428 Democrats)

Mike Bloomberg: 59%
Tom Steyer: 33%
Bernie Sanders: 28%
Joe Biden: 25%
Elizabeth Warren: 24%
Donald Trump: 13%
Pete Buttigieg: 12%
Andrew Yang: 7%
Amy Klobuchar: 7%
Tulsi Gabbard: 3%
Deval Patrick: 1%
Michael F. Bennet: 1%

Bloomberg's utter dominance of the airwaves has been the one truly new thing about this primary. No previous candidate had the money to run hundreds of millions of dollars in ads across the country. Unsurprisingly, Bloomberg is the only candidate whose ads have been seen by a majority of Democratic voters, in a poll where roughly one-sixth as many voters say they support him. The visibility of the other candidates is striking; Sanders, Biden and Warren have run spots in only a few primary states, but around a quarter of Democrats have seen them. That is a point in favor of digital ads, which these candidates have swarmed, even in states where they are not on TV.

DEBATE SEASON

The Democratic National Committee released its standards for its upcoming Nevada debate, and a riot broke out. Gone was the party's innovative, controversial donor threshold, which had pleased the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Instead, candidates would earn their place onstage by securing at least one delegate in Iowa or New Hampshire, or by hitting dramatically higher polling marks — 10 percent in any four polls, or 12 percent in two polls of Nevada and South Carolina.

That was a five-point leap from the standards for New Hampshire's upcoming debate, which might have caused panic on its own. The end of the donor threshold was something else entirely. Within minutes, the Sanders campaign had accused the DNC of slanting the rules to help the self-funding billionaire who has refused to campaign in early states or seek individual donations.

To now change the rules in the middle of the game to accommodate Mike Bloomberg, who is trying to buy his way into the Democratic nomination, is wrong, said Sanders senior adviser Jeff Weaver. That’s the definition of a rigged system.”

As Trailer readers know, Bloomberg's rivals had been egging him on to qualify for the debates and face them. But they had wanted him to do it by getting donations. At the moment, just three Democrats have qualified according to the new rules: Sanders, Warren and Joe Biden. After a few rough news cycles, in which the party committee was attacked for standards that nonwhite candidates did not happen to meet, the party had opened up a new front, facing accusations that it created Bloomberg-friendly rules because Bloomberg had donated to the party. (Bloomberg still does not qualify for the debate under these rules.)

CANDIDATE TRACKER

And then there were eleven. John Delaney, a three-term Maryland congressman who announced his presidential candidacy 2½ years ago, dropped out of the race on Friday morning.

"It is clear that God has a different purpose for me at this moment in time," Delaney said in a statement. "Let’s stop the nonsense of unrealistic and divisive campaign promises and be the party the American people need a decent, unifying, future-focused and common-sense party."

Delaney entered the race in July 2017, betting that an early start and plenty of hustle could lift him from obscurity and into the presidential conversation. He ran the first Iowa campaign ads of any Democratic candidate, exactly two years ago; he was the first Democrat to open campaign offices and the first (of just two) who visited all 99 Iowa counties. He was the only one who visited them twice and the only one who bought 30 minutes of TV time to lay out his entire agenda.

It never translated into support, even with a clear message (a moderate candidate could build the largest possible coalition) and a few memorable promises (he would sign only bills with bipartisan support in his first 100 days). Delaney, a multimillionaire, lent more than $20 million of his own money to the campaign but failed to attract donors, a weakness that became fatal as the Democratic National Committee required candidates to hit total donation thresholds for access to the debates. 

Delaney's two appearances on the debate stages, which came before that rule was enforced, did him little good; he made the most news after Elizabeth Warren, exasperated with Delaney's criticism of her wealth tax, said she did not "understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

He campaigned for five months after that, but Delaney's role in the race was effectively over. He laid off some staffers, lost others to Amy Klobuchar's campaign, and wound things down with a long tour of small towns, hoping that a focus on rural Iowa could net him delegates. There was no evidence that it was working, as campaigns with more support had the state wired.

With Delaney's exit, there are just seven Democrats actively competing for Iowa and three focused on later states. Three of the four senators tied up in the impeachment trial and are expected to get back to the state this weekend; Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado is focused on New Hampshire. All three senators, as well as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, are also flooding the state with surrogates. 

Bernie Sanders. His campaign has events planned in Indianola and Cedar Rapids, led by surrogates, but possible for him to attend depending on the Senate schedule.

Elizabeth Warren. She'll rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Davenport, Senate schedule depending.

Amy Klobuchar. She'll fly around the state for stops in Bettendorf, Sioux City, Cedar Falls and Des Moines.

Joe Biden. He'll hold his final eastern Iowa town halls in North Liberty, Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.

Pete Buttigieg. He'll make five appearances in eastern Iowa: Waterloo, Oelwein, Dubuque, Anamosa and Cedar Rapids.

Andrew Yang. He'll hold town halls in Fort Dodge, Carroll, Boone and Des Moines.

Tom Steyer. He'll hold town halls in West Des Moines and Waterloo.

Deval Patrick. He's continuing his New Hampshire bus tour with stops in Manchester and Exeter.

Mike Bloomberg. He'll make stops in Colorado and Arizona.

CAUCUS HISTORY

By 1984, every Democrat running for president took Iowa seriously and began courting it early. For the second time, the party started out with an heir apparent — Walter Mondale, the vice president from neighboring Minnesota. For the second time, it was nervously optimistic about defeating an incumbent for the president. And for the second time, it would help to launch a candidacy that lost to that president in a landslide.

But first, there would be a real campaign for Iowa. Mondale jumped into the race in February 1983, within a week of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and Sen. Alan Cranston of California. The former vice president had one goal: hold onto his lead, which was overwhelming, no matter who got into the race.

For most of the off-year, no strong rival emerged. The 69-year-old Cranston (younger than four of this year's Democrats, his age was an issue) ran as the nuclear-freeze candidate. Hart, not yet 50, ran as the candidate of new ideas and generational change. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, was a real-life hero who argued that the party could win in the center.

None was pegged to win, which set up a yearlong expectations game, of candidates arguing that anything less than a Mondale landslide would crack the race wide open. "I think he's got to have 50 percent of the vote," Lt. Gov. Robert Anderson, Glenn's campaign chief in Iowa, said of Mondale. "If he comes out with 35 percent, he's lost."

Their only hope was that Mondale would fritter away his lead, which he didn't. It was no longer a secret that an insurgent candidate could camp out in Iowa and run a grass-roots campaign, and even George McGovern, who had lost the 1972 presidential race and then his Senate seat, jumped into the race to see whether Iowa liberals still loved him. That crowded out Cranston, and in October's Des Moines Register poll, Mondale led Glenn by 19 points, with no one else running close. But Glenn was sputtering, a good-on-paper candidate who made blunders like a no-show at a key rural candidate forum. Hart was the beneficiary, sneaking under the radar.

On Feb. 20, the latest the contest would ever be held, Mondale took 49 percent of the vote, exactly where his critics had set expectations. Hart trailed with 17 percent and McGovern with 10 percent, effectively ending Cranston's campaign to be the left wing's candidate. (That role would eventually be filled by Jesse Jackson, who skipped Iowa.) The story of the night was Glenn's implosion into single digits. He would end his campaign in the month; Iowa, it turned out, had picked Mondale's chief opponent, who would battle him across the country for the next five months.

COUNTDOWN

... three days until the Iowa caucuses
... seven days until the seventh Democratic debate
... 11 days until the New Hampshire primary
... 22 days until the Nevada caucuses
... 29 days until the South Carolina primary
... 32 days until Super Tuesday