DES MOINES, Iowa – Democratic presidential candidates made a colorful and often loud pitch to Iowa Democrats at the Steak Fry fundraiser in Des Moines on Saturday as a new poll showed Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden in a close race in the state.
The event, a fundraiser for the Polk County Democratic Party and one of the biggest remaining opportunities for candidates to flex their organizing muscles in Iowa before the caucuses, came as a number of candidates are facing an uncertain future in the race and shaking up and ramping up their campaigns in an effort to break out of the pack.
With thousands of Iowa Democrats braving ominous gray skies and intermittent rain, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, punctuating a summer-long buildup in Iowa, drew one of the most robust receptions.
To the chants of, “Pete, Pete, Pete,” the once-little-known candidate began his speech joking, “I guess I can cross out the part where it says my name is Pete Buttigieg.”
Likewise, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who announced Thursday she is going all-in on Iowa in hopes of a top-three finish, despite lagging in national and Iowa polls. “I’m moving to Iowa,” Harris thundered, albeit facetiously, from the stage at a sprawling riverside park in Des Moines.
With just over four months until Iowans launch the 2020 Democratic nominating contest on Feb. 3, candidates have begun sharpening their contrasts, particularly with Warren, who is building a robust Iowa campaign.
The new Des Moines Register-CNN-Mediacom poll showed Warren running about even with Biden, who led the last poll in June.
Unlike the former vice president, who marched into the event led by a fire truck and with a marching band and hundreds of supporters in tow, or Harris, who danced along with a drum line into the fundraiser, Warren held no pre-show festivities and came in to speak at the event relatively unnoticed.
Still, the Massachusetts senator gave a rousing speech that focused on her call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment and plans to address corruption in Washington.
“I know what’s broken, I know how to fix it, and we’re building a grassroots movement to make it happen,” she told the crowd to chants of her name.
For some of the other 19 candidates who spoke, the event was more about dire appeals to remain in the race.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker warned he may need to end his campaign if he’s unable to raise $1.7 million by the end of the third fundraising quarter. Booker, who entered the race last winter with key staff and backing from influential Iowans, has struggled to break through.
“This election is not an election about me, it’s a team sport,” Booker shouted, his voice hoarse from the impassioned delivery. “And so I’m gonna call to you right now, I need everyone’s help with my campaign.”
Candidates worked to turn out their supporters in force. Of the 12,000 attending, 9,000 of the tickets were provided by the campaigns. Buttigieg’s and Biden’s campaigns competed for turnout, with both turning out well over 1,000.
Part festival, part organizing exercise, the daylong event was quintessentially Iowa, with roots going back to veteran former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who held the first one more than 40 years ago when first running for the House. The Polk County Democratic Party took over the steak fry after Harkin’s retirement in 2015.
Democrats of all ages and their families enjoyed the traditional steaks – 10,500 were grilled by volunteers – but also had the option to order from a food truck or visit a craft beer tent. There was also artichoke salad and grilled chicken, hardly on the menu during the Harkin days.
The county’s Democratic chairman, Sean Bagniewski, said the event has a “modern twist.”
“That’s the future of the party – it’s gonna be more women in positions of leadership, it’s gonna be more people of color, and it’s going to be more young people,” he said.
What hasn’t changed is the event’s significance for the candidates. When Barack Obama marched into the 2007 Iowa steak fry flanked by 1,000 supporters, skeptical Iowans were put on notice that he could win the state’s caucus. Bagniewski said that, like 2007, Democrats are looking for someone who can show they have the organizational strength to win.
While Buttigieg and Biden have recently pressed Warren on whether she would propose raising taxes to pay for her universal health care proposal, both used uplifting messages Saturday.
“I’ve got some good news, in only 135 days, you get to be the very first in the country, to lead us away from the horror show, from this reality show,” Buttigieg said.
Likewise, Biden continued his upbeat call for Americans to “pick our heads up, remember who we are, we are the United States of America.”
Yet, against this festive backdrop, Biden did comment on the dust-up over a whistleblower’s complaint in Washington that involved President Donald Trump’s phone conversation with Ukraine’s leader.
Although the complaint is under wraps, Trump is known to want Ukraine to investigate business dealings there by Biden’s son Hunter during his vice presidency.
“The fact of the matter is that that fellow in the White House knows that if we get the nomination we’re gonna beat him like a drum,” Biden said. “So be prepared for every lousy thing that’s coming from him.”
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