2020 Democrats make closing arguments in final hours before Iowa caucuses
Posted February 2, 2020 5:00 p.m. EST
CNN — The leading Democratic presidential contenders have sharpened their cases in the final hours of the Iowa caucuses, hoping that clearer divisions will help undecided caucusgoers tilt their way.
All six candidates -- former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang are hoping to squeeze as much time in Iowa as possible, looking to maximize their outreach to Iowans before many begin caucusing.
The rush highlights Iowa's importance to the broader Democratic primary, and that the candidate who wins here on Monday night will enjoy a wealth of momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary next week.
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Here's how the top six candidates in Iowa are closing out their campaign in the state:
Keenly attuned to Democratic voters' focus on electability, Biden spent his final sprint through Iowa playing up Republican attacks on him -- showing voters that he's already weathered the full force of Trump's political machine, while his primary rivals have not.
In particular, he has played up Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst's comments to reporters in Washington suggesting that Iowa Democratic caucusgoers might turn away from Biden after Republicans used President Donald Trump's impeachment proceedings to attack Biden and his son Hunter.
"She kind of spilled the beans," Biden told a crowd Friday morning in Burlington.
Then he asked the question Ernst had raised about Iowa Democrats: "Will they support Joe Biden at this point?" The crowd applauded and yelled "yeah!" "Seems so, right?" Biden said. "Seems so."
Biden's closing pitch is the same as the slogan on the side of his campaign bus: Restoring the soul of the nation.
"In Joe Biden's America, the President's tax returns won't be a secret. Political self-interest will not be confused with the national interest. And no one -- no one, not even the President of the United States -- will be above the law," Biden said Thursday morning in a speech in the Des Moines suburbs.
"I'm absolutely certain we can repair this country," he said. "And we can repair our standing in the world. We can win the battle for the soul of America. The country's ready."
He rarely says his Democratic opponents' names, but punctuated his stump speeches with clear jabs at his leading foes.
On Sunday in Dubuque, Biden said the next President "is going to have to face a nation that's fundamentally divided, as well as a war in disarray. And with all due respect, there's going to be no time for on-the-job training. You'd better know what you're doing the first day."
Minutes later, in a jab at Sanders and Warren, Biden brought up the axiom that talk is cheap. "In politics sometimes it's very expensive," he said. "Especially if you don't tell people how you're going to pay for what you want to do."
The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor is closing his campaign by highlighting his uniqueness as the youngest candidate in the race: It's time to "open the door to a new generation of leadership."
Buttigieg has highlighted the message throughout the closing days of his Iowa campaign, one where the 38-year-old former mayor -- more than most candidates in the field -- needs a strong showing to legitimize his run and prove some semblance of electability.
Buttigieg has repeatedly used a campaign riff to explain why his age -- something some Democrats see as a fault -- has historically been useful to his party. Buttigieg tells audience that, in the last 50 years of the Democratic Party, the presidential nominees who won were "new on the scene"; "was opening the door to a new generation"; and "who did not have an office in Washington, or if they did, hadn't been there for very long."
"We had better make sure we win this time because the country can't take another term of this President," Buttigieg said this week.
As part of the strategy, Buttigieg has begun taking on two of his older opponents -- Biden and Sanders -- by name, suggesting they do not fit that historic mold.
Buttigieg, in response to an ad where Biden's campaign argues that now is "no time to take a risk," told voters in Decorah that "history has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments." And at an event in Anamosa, Buttigieg cast Sanders as too unmoving, arguing that the senator feels "you're either for a revolution, or you got to be for the status quo, and there's nothing in between."
This reflects a new consensus inside the Buttigieg campaign, where the former mayor's top strategist view Biden and Sanders as their most formidable opponents. The Buttigieg campaign, people with knowledge of their strategy say, will be satisfied with a top two finish or beating Biden in Iowa.
Buttigieg, to make that case, has focused intently on winning over what the mayor has called "future former Republicans," people who may have voted for Trump in 2016 but as disaffected with the President and willing to give a Democrat a chance.
"I was hopeful that he was somebody different," Anne Wahl, a 49-year-old former nuclear medical tech from Marshalltown, said of her vote for Trump in 2016. "You learn from everything. I look at it that this next time around let's start with somebody who starts out very presidential and intelligent. Let's start their first and go from there."
The question for Buttigieg's team is whether those Iowans will come out Monday night, allowing the former mayor to expand the electorate with voters eager to, as he says, usher in a "new generation" of leaders.
Klobuchar's closing message can be summed up with two words: "Grit" and "charm."
Klobuchar, who turned her snowy announcement speech into a sign of her toughness, is closing with some of that same messaging in Iowa, hoping that the culturally similar Democrats in Iowa will be drawn to a senator selling herself as pragmatic and tough.
Klobuchar has peppered her final events with nods to her Minnesota upbringing, her grandfather who saved money in a coffee can and her ability to win over Republican voters. Her ads have also fixated on this message, touting the fact that she has visited all 99 Iowa counties and referred to her "Midwestern charisma" and "grit."
Klobuchar has also turned up the heat on one of her opponents, Buttigieg, in the closing days of the campaign, faulting him as dismissing the importance of the impeachment trial.
"I don't have the luxury to switch the channel and watch cartoons, as one of my opponents suggested," she said on Friday after Buttigieg suggested the chaos in Washington has led some voters to turn off the news and watch cartoons. "I'm here. I'm hoping that the people see it as a plus and I'm going to do my job."
One dynamic Klobuchar supporters are hoping plays out Monday is that Iowans, many of whom like Klobuchar, will be moved to back her because they want her to stay in the race beyond the Hawkeye State.
And there are signs that is impacting voters across the state, with numerous undecided voters telling CNN they were considering Klobuchar because they wanted her to get further than Iowa.
"In my precinct, I think Pete will probably win it," said Barbara Wells, a Des Moines resident. "So if I can go over to Amy and make Amy viable, that would be really important to me because it keeps her in the race."
Klobuchar has played this up in recent days, all but pleading with Iowans to send her on to New Hampshire and beyond.
"This person deserves a ticket out of Iowa," she said this week, "to be able to go forward, and I am asking you to do that for me."
Sanders' closing pitch to Iowa voters sounds a lot like what he's been saying all along: Rich corporate and establishment interests are aligned against working people. But his campaign has the grassroots power to win -- there and around the country -- if they can drive as many people out to the caucuses as possible.
The emphasis on expanding the electorate has been a central theme of every Sanders speech since he arrived back in the state for this final push.
"What this campaign in Iowa is about and what it is about nationally is about voter turnout," Sanders said in Cedar Rapids on Sunday. "It is reaching forth to our friends and neighbors who have in many instances given up on political process."
Sanders has also sought to use a late round of pushback, including one from an outside group that spent nearly $700,000 to run an ad here questioning his electability and health, as fuel for his supporters.
Calling in to an Iowa City rally this week from Washington, where he and the other senator-candidates have been stuck serving as jurors in Trump's impeachment trial, Sanders cast the uptick in attacks on his campaign as a sign of its strength.
"Right now there are people with a lot of money (and) they are sitting around trying to figure out how they can defeat us," Sanders said. "But at the end of the day, the reason that we will win is that we have the people, and we have an unprecedently strong, grassroots movement in Iowa and around the country that tonight are knocking on thousands and thousands of doors."
In a campaign ad that began running this week, Sanders highlighted those volunteers, along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; a young, diverse group of supporters; and the climate activists from the Sunrise Movement, who appear in turns as Sanders' voice, from a rally in New York last year, delivers the message.
"Take a look around you and find someone you don't know, maybe somebody doesn't look kinda like you," Sanders says, then asks: "Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you're willing to fight for yourself?"
"Unite the Party."
That was the message on posters at a Warren event in Urbandale on Saturday.
Warren is closing out her campaign in Iowa by pitching herself as the one candidate on the ticket with power to bring together warring factions inside the Democratic Party and beat Trump in November.
She made a similar case in three recent ads here that touted her ability to bring along voters who had backed Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016. Another spot highlighted her endorsement by the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register.
In an ad titled, "She Can Win," a man who identifies himself as a former Trump voter says he will back Warren this year.
"The people that say that a woman can't win, I say 'nonsense.' I believe a woman can beat Trump and I believe Elizabeth is that woman," he says.
Another ad features three voters -- each of whom backed different candidates in 2016 -- attesting to Warren's ability to forge a coalition.
"We can't afford a fractured party in 2020," a former Bernie supporter says.
The Clinton backer from 2016 adds: "In 2020, the person that can unite the party is Elizabeth Warren."
And the erstwhile Trump voter delivers the closing message.
"If a former Trump supporter can be energized by Elizabeth Warren," he says, "then Elizabeth Warren is doing something great for America."
Yang, the entrepreneur and first-time candidate, spent his final events on the campaign trail in Iowa hammering home the same message that launched him to stardom: A call for a universal basic income.
Yang's proposal to give every American $1,000 per month -- which he calls a "freedom dividend" -- has been the animating cause of his candidacy.
"We're living in a country -- there are 78% of us are living paycheck to paycheck. Almost half can't afford an unexpected $500 bill. Too many Americans are being left behind in the 21st century economy," Yang said Sunday morning on ABC. "We need to put the gains of this economy directly into our hands, into families' hands around the country, through a dividend of $1,000 a month."
Yang has sought to appeal to disaffected voters -- from Sanders' supporters to Republicans. At events, he's asked those that voted for Trump to raise their hands -- and then asked the crowd to applaud them for being there.
But he's also tried to show he's having the most fun of any candidate in the race. On Sunday morning, he hopped off a chair in Ames and then told a small crowd around him, "Let's see Bernie Sanders do that!"