CEDAR RAPIDS — Nineteen presidential hopefuls auditioned Sunday afternoon in front of Iowa Democrats who will kick off the nomination process with the first-in-the-nation caucuses in 239 days.
While they sang from the same songbook on abortion rights, combating climate change, limiting access to guns and providing health care to all Americans — and they were in perfect harmony in calling President Donald Trump the worst president in U.S. history — they weren’t always on the same page during their downtown Cedar Rapids performance.
When it was over, it was clear that no candidate had sewed up the Iowa caucuses. But they all helped Democrats better understand who they are and what they want to do as president, said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association.
“I don’t know if anyone particularly broke out,” he said.
For some candidates who haven’t spent a lot of time in Iowa yet, the program was an opportunity to introduce themselves, “but I think that they all helped present their beliefs and policy initiatives to everyone in the room because there were question marks over quite a few of them because we have not seen them.”
If Iowa Democrats came away from the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration undecided and uncommitted, it was not for lack of candidates who enthused and inspired them, but for what some saw as an embarrassment of riches.
“It actually made it harder,” said Travis Henderson, 31, of Iowa City. “I came expecting clarity — in the sense of, I expected some people would get the crowd way more excited than other candidates. But it was pretty split. I think the Democrats have a good problem, which is we’ve got so many great candidates.”
Marcia McFall and Susan Huetter, both of Newton, came as supporters of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, although not 100 percent committed.
“I’m not even 50 percent there,” McFall said while enjoying the shade of a boulevard tree while waiting for Booker to arrive at a pre-event rally along First Avenue E.
Booker is in Huetter’s top three, “but I’m still holding out — it’s early.”
Peggy Sherrets of Oelwein wasn’t wearing any team colors when she arrived. She hoped that listening to the five-minute speeches might help her find a candidate to back, but wasn’t in a rush.
“It’s a long time until February,” said Sherrets, who previously saw a couple of the candidates and was open to most.
The candidates gave them plenty to think about as they delivered abridged versions of their stump speeches.
Booker, who kicked off the speed-dating version of campaigning, gave props to Iowans for having “charted the course for previous presidents.” He also highlighted his Iowa connection: “My grandma was born and raised in Iowa.”
The caucuses won’t be won “from on high … but by people on the ground” like the Barack Obama supporters who outworked and out-organized the competition in 2008, he told supporters before heading into the convention center.
The election “will not be a referendum on (Trump). It will be a referendum on us” and what the party is for.
There was a lot of talk about taking the fight to Trump and Republicans.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she’s doing that by building a grass roots movement as a presidential candidate who’s fighting to make the federal government work for the rest of America, not just the wealthiest and powerful. That includes taking nearly 30,000 selfies with people at her rallies.
“Right now in America, there’s a lot that’s broken, there’s a lot that’s wrong and there’s a lot that we need to fight back against,” Warren told the event. “Right now in America there is a real hunger. There are people who are ready for a big, structural change in this country. They’re ready for change and I’ve got a plan for that.”
One proposal would be to create a wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1 percent and use the proceeds to cancel student debt, offer universal child-care and preschool and create 1.2 million manufacturing jobs.
The nominee has to be someone who “deeply, deeply understands what the workers in America are going through,” said Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
“That person is the person who can beat Donald Trump,” Ryan said. “The person who could win Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa and Ohio and western Pennsylvania and pull these workers back into fold of the Democratic Party.”
If Democrats can’t win back those places that Trump carried in 2016, “we may as well fold up that big tent right now,’ said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. His experience as the only Democrat to win a statewide reelection race in a state Trump won shows he can carry red states, Bullock said.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand used her five minutes to play off a Fox News commentator’s remark that she “wasn’t very polite.”
“You got that right,” she said, adding that this is not the time to settle because abortion rights are under attack from right-wing politicians “and a whole lot of men.”
“Now is not the time to be polite. Now is not the time to for small steps. Now is the time to fight like hell,” she said.
Teachers and education received support from the candidates, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, who pledged to make a major investment to close the pay gap for teachers.
Raising teacher pay and reversing the Trump agenda that has made it harder for working-class Americans will not be a question of affordability, said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“There’s plenty of money in this world and there’s plenty of money in this country, it’s just in the wrong hands,” he said.
Two of the candidates talked about how their military experience has informed their campaigns. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has served as a soldier for 16 years and deployed twice, focused on foreign policy, promising to shift the focus away from “wasteful regime change” efforts and “hyping up a new cold war and nuclear arms race.”
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan, asked Iowans to help him “change the channel” from the show Trump has created — “whatever you want to call it — a reality show, a horror show, game show — and we’re going to change the channel to something completely different.”
He reminded his audience that freedom and patriotism do not belong only to Republicans.
“The flag on my shoulder wasn’t a Republican flag. It was an American flag representing the belonging of all us in the republic for which it stands,” Buttigieg said. “Freedom is not a conservative value, patriotism is not a conservative-only value and God does not belong to any political party least of all the one that produced this current president.”
Even if Iowans don’t yet have a favorite candidate, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke was impressed with how fired up supporters for all the candidates were outside of Sunday’s venue and inside the hall.
“We’re all focused on the same goal for this country — defeating Donald Trump in 2020 and bringing this country together again in 2021,” he said.
Candidate Marianne Williamson, who has moved to Des Moines, said people who think “we just need someone tough enough to take him on is naive about the nature of the opponent.”
“Trump has touched people in a very fearful place, and only love can cast out fear — not money, not strategy, not anger, not mobilization,” she said.
Beating Trump won’t be enough, however, several candidates said.
Although Democrats know Trump is the “worst president in history, defeating him is not guaranteed,” said former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. To win, Democrats need a nominee who is progressive and pragmatic, someone with a bold vision.
However, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seemed to reject that approach to winning back the White House. Without mentioning former Vice President Joe Biden by name, Sanders seemed to target the front-runner in the polls by saying the idea that the best way forward “is a middle-ground strategy that antagonizes no one, that stands up to nobody and that changes nothing” is bad strategy.
Citing a previous commitment, Biden did not attend the largest multicandidate event of the 2020 campaign to date.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang was the only one to ding him by name, joking that “Joe Biden must not like to travel.”
The absence may not hurt Biden, who according to an Iowa Poll published Saturday showed him leading the field with the support of 24 percent of likely caucusgoers. Sanders had the support of 16 percent followed by Warren at 15 percent and Buttigieg at 14 percent. No one else was in double digits.
Yang has his own economic plan — a technology “dividend” designed to address the potential loss of jobs in service and retail areas similar to the cut in manufacturing jobs brought on by an economic transformation that he said helped Trump get elected.
Trump won by identifying the problem, he said, but he got the solutions wrong by trying to turn back the clock.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney warned against Democrats moving too far to the left. Instead, Democrats should “become the party of ideas, the party that embraces debate, the party that wants to build a big tent so progressives who want change, moderates who want solutions, independents who just want their elected officials to put their country first and even those disaffected Republicans who look at this president and see that he has no moral compass.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who called Iowans “neighbors” and said “I can see Iowa from my porch,” touted her family’s union roots and the opportunity to run for president of fulfillment of America’s “shared dreams.
Klobuchar said she has an optimistic economic agenda that was spawned from a heartland background very different from Trump.
“I don’t come from money but I’ve got grit,” she said.
Climate change was a common theme, one sounded by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. He pledged to make defeating climate change the top priority. He challenged his rivals to produce a plan like he has so Americans can compare them in a fair debate where “everybody is called to account.”
“Donald Trump is wrong. Wind turbines in Iowa don’t cause cancer, they cause jobs,” he said.
Speaking near the end of the program, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was struck by the similarity in what each of the candidate wanted.
“But to do any of it, we have to fix the broke politics in Washington,” the Colorado senator said.
That includes Democrats taking control of the Senate because while “Trump is the star of his own three-ring circus, there is no doubt who the ringmaster actually is” — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
He called for a “broad-based agenda that unifies country, that unifies Democrats, but also brings along independents and Republicans “who know the Freedom Caucus is not representing what they need for their kids or for their grandkids or for America’s place in the world.”
And Iowa native California Rep. Eric Swalwell challenged Iowa Democrats to “go big, be bold and do good” on issues, solutions and the way government treats people by building on the 2018 successes that gave their party control of the House and “cut our time in hell in half.”
Molly Duffy of The Gazette contributed to this report.