Van Cleave was among the thousands of Democrats — 12,342 to be exact — who descended on a muddy lakeside park here Saturday, withstanding hours of drizzle and then steady rain at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry to listen to 17 presidential hopefuls make their pitch to voters in this all-important first caucuses state.
But as the day wound to a close, Van Cleave, 50, a schoolteacher from Marshalltown, felt as conflicted as ever. “There are so many candidates I like,” she said. “Elizabeth Warren is my favorite. But to me, electability is so important. . . . I just want someone who can beat Donald Trump. I think she can, but I’m not sure. I am just so torn.”
With four months to go before next year’s Feb. 3 caucuses, the competition for votes is intensifying in Iowa, with most Democrats still grappling with the question of who is best positioned to take on President Trump.
A new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll of likely caucus-goers released Saturday night found surging support for Warren in the race. According to the poll, 22 percent of likely caucus-goers said Warren is their first choice for the Democratic nomination. Former vice president Joe Biden was at 20 percent, followed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at 11 percent. No other candidate was in double digits.
The survey was more proof of Warren’s growing popularity in Iowa, where she has attracted large crowds for months. It marked the first notable shake-up in the race. Though Warren’s lead was narrow, Biden had been the polling leader in all three of the Register’s 2020 polls, including the most recent one in June.
The poll was released after a whirlwind day of campaigning at the Steak Fry, which has been an essential Iowa tradition for presidential candidates for the past 40 years since it was launched as a small grass-roots fundraiser for Tom Harkin, a revered Iowa Democrat who retired from the U.S. Senate in 2014. It has long been regarded as one of the best opportunities for a candidate to make a splash among Iowa Democrats and show their organizational force.
Biden, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., each reserved massive spaces to rally their supporters. And like all the campaigns, they each led big parades to the stage, including Harris, who danced with a drum line and hundreds of cheering supporters.
The show of force comes at a pivotal time for Harris, who has been lagging in national and Iowa polls. She announced in the past week that she is going all-in on Iowa in hopes of placing in the top three, a ticket that her campaign hopes could propel her to South Carolina and into Super Tuesday. “I don’t know if you heard,” Harris cheekily said on the stage. “I’m moving to Iowa.”
Harris was not the only candidate looking to the Steak Fry for a jolt of life. While Booker marched into the event with scores of enthusiastic supporters and received a standing ovation from most of the crowd, he offered a more dire assessment of his campaign offstage. He told reporters if he can’t raise $1.7 million in coming days that he will reconsider whether he has the “pathway” to win the nomination. “I don’t believe people should stay in this just to stay in it,” he said. “You either have a trajectory to win or not.”
Biden arrived at the Steak Fry as the national polling leader, with scores of supporters who turned up early to rally with the former vice president. His parade included a firetruck packed with members of the International Association of Firefighters, a union that has endorsed his campaign, which sounded its siren to announce Biden’s entrance into the event.
Biden was immediately swarmed by supporters clamoring for photographs and signatures. He pumped his fist, keeping the rhythm of a chant of his name, and reached through a mass of cameras to shake hands. Racing to a grill, where the candidates each spent time cooking chicken and steak, Biden threw on an apron. “Put me to work,” he said.
Onstage, Biden made no mention of reports that Trump had urged the Ukranian president to open up an investigation into a company with ties to Biden’s son Hunter.
But hours before, at a gaggle with reporters, Biden called Trump’s actions an “overwhelming abuse of power” and urged congressional Democrats to investigate. He also suggested the president’s actions indicated he is worried about winning reelection.
Trump “knows I’ll beat him like a drum,” the former vice president told reporters.
While the Biden campaign bought more than a thousand tickets to hand out to supporters, the Warren campaign bought just 200, gambling that her supporters would turn out without much nudging.
And as the senator from Massachusetts took the stage, thousands of Warren signs popped up into the air.
Afterward, Warren spent more than two hours at her campaign booth, posing for more than 1,000 selfies in what has become her signature campaign move. Among those waiting in line was Trey Hill, a middle school teacher from Ankeny, who said he’d narrowed down his choices to Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders.
“For Warren, for me, it was definitely . . . her confidence, her just sheer strength and determination to fight for what she believes in. I’m really interested in Bernie just because he is kind of the impetus to this revolution that we have going on,” Hill said. “And Pete, I just think that he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever heard speak and I think that he’s got a mind to really take this country really far.”
When he got to the front of the line, a Warren aide took Hill’s phone; he would have about three seconds with the senator.
“I’m with you in this fight!” Hill blurted out.
“Absolutely, thank you!” Warren told him.