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Iowa Democrats trim their lists over a marquee weekend

The crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates turned to new and sometimes desperate measures over a marquee weekend in Iowa.

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Eric Bradner
CNN — The crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates turned to new and sometimes desperate measures over a marquee weekend in Iowa.

As summer turns to fall, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden have separated themselves from the pack. The gold standard poll in Iowa showed Warren with 22% support and Biden with 20% of likely Democratic caucus-goers.

The new reality left more than a dozen other Democrats scrambling to keep the primary from turning into a two-person race -- with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker offering an extraordinary admission that he might have no path forward.

Their weekend of retail politicking took place amid a national firestorm over reports that President Donald Trump had pressed the Ukrainian president to investigate the business dealings of Biden's son, Hunter Biden, in the country.

There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.

Warren arrived in Iowa newly at war with Democratic leaders in Congress. She declared -- first in a fundraising email, then in her speech in front of 12,000 Democrats at the Polk County Steak Fry on Saturday -- that "Congress is complicit" in Trump's actions because the Democratic-led House has failed to begin impeachment proceedings.

"What the President has now demonstrated is that he thinks it's pretty clear he doesn't have to follow the law, and in fact can continue to commit high crimes and misdemeanors," Warren told reporters in Cedar Rapids. "He can go back to the well on exactly what he did before. And that is invite and profit from foreign interference in our election. It's time for Congress to step up and begin serious impeachment proceedings against this man."

Biden, meanwhile, was at times testy with reporters over the news. It's the sort of clash that Biden has relished -- one that gave him the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Trump as if the general election had already arrived.

But Biden was also insistent that the focus should remain on Trump improperly inviting foreign interference in a US election -- not on Biden and his son.

"Trump did a terrible thing," he said Sunday in Kansas City, Kansas -- his first stop after two days in Iowa. "Focus on the violation of the Constitution this President has engaged in."

But as he campaigned in Iowa -- a climate change speech and an LGBTQ forum in Cedar Rapids on Friday, then a Steak Fry appearance Saturday -- there were signs of trouble, including a poll that showed Warren as the second choice of 20% of Democrats surveyed to Biden's 10% -- a potentially important factor given Iowa's unique caucus rules that will force those backing candidates with less than 15% support to move on to their second choices.

He also faced criticism over his response to the moderator at the LGBTQ forum.

Lyz Lenz, an Iowa-based journalist and author, had asked Biden a pointed question about his voting record and his reference to Vice President Mike Pence as a "decent guy."

Biden paused and responded: "You're a lovely person." Then, on the way off the stage, Lenz tweeted, Biden "said to me dryly, 'You're a real sweetheart.' "

"It's 2019 -- we shouldn't be calling professional women sweethearts," Lenz told CNN backstage.

In Iowa, Warren and Biden appear to be the dominant forces a little more than four months from the Democratic caucuses. But there remains room for movement.

The poll found that just 20% of likely caucus-goers have a first-choice candidate and say they are unlikely to be persuaded to support someone else.

That reality was underscored at the Polk County Steak Fry on Saturday: While many of the 12,000 tickets organizers said they sold to the event were purchased by campaigns that brought their own supporters in, many attendees who had purchased their own tickets or gotten them from their local Democratic parties said in interviews that they were still considering multiple candidates.

Harper Folsom, a 23-year-old student from Manchester, Iowa, said her top two candidates are Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro -- but she also likes Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Booker.

"I think it's important to have the most diverse amount of voices that we can," she said.

Still, many of the Steak Fry attendees said they are ready for the field to winnow -- and the CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found evidence of who voters have already broadly dropped from the lists of candidates they are considering.

Only eight candidates are even viewed favorably by a clear majority of likely Democratic caucusgoers: Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have by far the highest net favorability rating, followed by California Sen. Kamala Harris, Booker, Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, O'Rourke and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is viewed favorably by just four percentage points more of those polled than see him unfavorably. And the rest of the field -- including Castro, billionaire investor Tom Steyer and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, all of whom might qualify for the party's October presidential debate -- is viewed unfavorably by a majority of likely Democratic caucusgoers.

Some candidates seeking a way out of the low single digits are turning to desperate measures.

Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie started Saturday morning with a memo featuring an unusual and startling admission: If Booker couldn't raise $1.7 million by the end of the month, he'd have no path forward and would need to exit the race.

The tactic appeared to work, at least initially. Demissie tweeted Sunday morning that Saturday had been Booker's biggest online fundraising day of the campaign, hauling in $300,000.

Other candidates were looking for a break-out at the Steak Fry in front of a crowd so large that it would have accounted for 5% of the total turnout in Iowa's record-breaking 2008 Democratic caucuses.

As Warren lingered at the Steak Fry for hours to greet and take pictures with attendees, Castro jumped into the line, and the two had a warm exchange.

Harris' campaign has mastered the art of the entrance. She walked into the Steak Fry dancing alongside a marching drumline.

O'Rourke had one of the day's most memorable moments when he repeated his call for mandatory assault-style rifle buy-backs. He also took a jab at Democratic leaders in Washington, saying they should not "live in fear" of Trump and the National Rifle Association, days after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, had said no other members of the party agree with O'Rourke's position.

"This is how we free ourselves from fear. We decide what we believe in and we fight like hell to achieve it -- and we don't let anyone, whether it's the NRA, the corporations, or the political action committees, or even our fellow Democrats tell us what is possible and what is not possible," O'Rourke said. "We the people decide what is possible in this country."

"I thought Beto really got people motivated," said Ray Johnson, a 67-year-old consumer protection worker in West Des Moines.

He and his wife said they were also considering backing O'Rourke, as well as Warren and Buttigieg, and said they were most concerned with who will defeat Trump. Johnson said he likes Biden, but thinks Democrats need someone younger who can excite voters.

Buttigieg, meanwhile, is seeking to leverage the eye-popping $25 million he raised in the last fundraising quarter in Iowa, where he is already on the air with television ads.

His campaign bought the second-most tickets to the Steak Fry after Biden, and turned in the day's most raucous appearance as a light rain fell in Des Moines.

Then, Buttigieg started a four-day bus tour of Iowa -- with reporters in tow and allowed to ask the candidate questions at any point.

At the Steak Fry, Nikki Lunden, a 41-year-old warehouse worker from Iowa City, said Buttigieg is her favorite candidate -- but most importantly, she wants to support "who's going to win it."

Robert Hein, who had driven from Minnesota -- a Super Tuesday state -- with his wife Amy, said he was "thinking maybe somebody young might be the better choice" after hearing former President Jimmy Carter say there should be an "age limit" for the presidency that would exclude Biden. He said he was already impressed by Buttigieg and left even more so.

He said Biden represents "a guarantee that we can get Trump out of there."

"But the more I listen to these folks, I think there are a good number of them who have a good shot at beating him in November," he said.

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