DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The urgent fight for the Democratic presidential nomination was raging across Iowa on Sunday as the party’s leading candidates and their allies fanned out across the state to deliver closing arguments centered on the defining question of the 2020 primary: Who is best positioned to defeat President Donald Trump?
Liberal firebrands Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders debated electability from dueling rallies 200 miles apart as they scrambled to reach as many voters as possible before being forced to return to Washington for Trump’s impeachment trial. With Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses just eight days away, it was unclear when the two senators would return.
“We gotta win. That’s a huge part of this,” Warren told several hundred people in Davenport, on the eastern edge of the state. “And also, can we just address it right there? Women win. The world changed when Donald Trump got elected.”
She added: “I know how to fight and I know how to win.”
Sanders and a collection of high-profile surrogates made an equally aggressive case in the rural community of Perry in central Iowa, having spent much of the weekend highlighting the candidate’s ability to energize a “multi-generational, multi-racial, working-class” coalition.
“The reason we are going to win here in Iowa is we have the strongest grassroots movement of any campaign,” Sanders said.
Sanders, perhaps more than Warren, has emerged as a central figure in the electability debate as new polls showed him gaining strength with the Feb. 3 caucuses nearing. Sanders’ strength sparked a growing sense of concern from his more moderate Democratic rivals, who fear that the 78-year-old Sanders is too radical to beat Trump in a one-on-one matchup this fall.
Stoking those fears, Trump’s campaign on Sunday teased a general election attack against Sanders. The Vermont senator had spent much of the day before campaigning alongside New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the president’s team sent out an email with the title, “Socialist invasion.”
“Why is radical socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spending so much time campaigning for Bernie? Because he’s the godfather of her extreme agenda and socialist vision for America,” the email said.
Before Sanders took the stage Sunday, one of his surrogates, filmmaker Michael Moore, defended democratic socialism and warned that more attacks were coming.
“You’re going to hear a lot now. The knives are sharpened,” Moore said.
One of the establishment favorites, Joe Biden, was appearing alongside U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, the latest in a growing list of local elected officials backing the former vice president.
Asked whether some party leaders are growing nervous about Sanders’ rise, Axne said: “Oh, my goodness I should really hope so.”
The youngest candidate in the race, 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg, was also playing up warnings about Sanders in his closing argument. With several polls showing Sanders in a strong position, Buttigieg’s campaign sent an email to supporters Saturday with the subject line: “Bernie Sanders could be the nominee.”
“We need a nominee who can galvanize our country,” the email said. “The Trump presidency will end one way or another, and when it does we need a president who can rally this country around a vision for the next generation. We know that candidate is Pete.”
Speaking to reporters at a subsequent event, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, stopped short of directly criticizing Sanders, but noted that “we are getting into the heart of the competition.”
“I believe that we should be very mindful that the very worst risk we can take at a time like this is to recycle the same Washington-style of political warfare that that brought us to this point,” Buttigieg said. “If we believe it’s important to win, and I sure do, then the best thing we could do is put forward a candidate who offers something new.”
Even with new rounds of state and national polls, a deep sense of uncertainty loomed over the Iowa contest.
One major complication: Several candidates will be forced to return to Washington on Monday, compelled by the Constitution to sit as jurors in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. The proceedings make it virtually impossible for the senators — Sanders, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado — to appear in Iowa during the week, although there is some sense that the trial could be over by week’s end.
As Iowa drew the most focus, billionaire candidate Tom Steyer reminded union workers in Nevada, which hosts the third contest on the primary calendar, that he hasn’t forgotten about them. Other candidates sent surrogates or appeared via phone or video.
“I’m know that I’m the only person who showed up here. That doesn’t actually shock me,” Steyer told reporters at the union conference in Las Vegas. “I try to show up and show that I care.”
Back in Iowa, Warren seized a dose of momentum of her own on Saturday after picking up a coveted endorsement from The Des Moines Register. The newspaper called her “the best leader for these times” and said she “is not the radical some perceive her to be” even if “some of her ideas for ‘big, structural change’ go too far.”
Warren leaned into her gender as she courted several hundred voters at an elementary school gymnasium in Davenport.
“We took back the House and we took back statehouses around the nation because of women candidates and the women who get out there and do the hard work,” she said.
“How are we going to win this thing?” she said. “We’re going to win it by drawing the distinction between the most corrupt administration in history, and a Democrat that’s willing to get out there and fight.”
Polls suggest Biden also has a substantial appeal among Democratic voters, especially African Americans. While he has been critical of Sanders in the past, he kept his focus instead on the threat of four more years of Trump in the White House.
“I don’t believe we are the dark, angry nation that Donald Trump tweets about at night,” he told a large crowd in Ankeny. “We are so much better than Donald Trump.”
Biden scored the endorsement of the Sioux City Journal, which called him “the candidate best positioned to give Americans a competitive head-to-head matchup with President Trump” and said he would be best at attracting support from “independents and disgruntled Republicans.”
Biden’s itinerary Sunday reflects his ability to attract a broad coalition of his own.
A devout Catholic, Biden attended Mass in Des Moines in the morning before heading to a union hall. Then he was scheduled to speak to a gathering of the NAACP and other minority advocacy groups.
After talking up the benefits of union members, Biden was asked about the GOP’s attempts during the impeachment trial to raise questions about his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine.
“You guys know it’s a bunch of malarkey,” he said.