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Democrats' weekend in Iowa shows how fluid the 2020 race remains

Updated 6:35 PM ET, Sun August 11, 2019

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) - Joe Biden arrived in Iowa on Wednesday to deliver a major speech condemning President Donald Trump's racism and -- in an effort to prove his strength as a general election candidate -- promising that "we can't, and I will not, let this man be reelected."

But soon after that high point, a series of verbal stumbles began for the former vice president. He referred to "white kids" when he meant "wealthy kids" and confused former British Prime Minister Theresa May with Margaret Thatcher on Thursday. Then, on Saturday, he twice claimed to have met with students who survived the Parkland school shooting as vice president, even though that shooting happened more than a year after Biden left office.

Amid those missteps, Biden connected with event-goers with ease on one of his busiest swings through an early-voting primary state yet.

His rollercoaster ride through Iowa for the Democratic front-runner punctuated a reality that was clear over three days in Iowa: Poll results are relatively steady, but on the ground, in the first state that will cast votes next year, the party's 2020 presidential race still feels wide open.

Less than six months from the Iowa caucuses, a Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic caucusgoers released Thursday found Biden in the lead in Iowa with 28% support, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 19%, California Sen. Kamala Harris at 11%, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 9%, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 8% and all others at 3% or less.

Many of the Democratic candidates descended on Iowa this past weekend for one of the rites of passage on the road to the White House: sweating through a summer day at the Iowa State Fair.

They saw the famous butter cow and flipped pork chops. They ate pork chops on a stick and corn dogs (and fried peanut butter and jelly, in the case of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is a vegan).

Some brought family -- like Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, whose son rode go-carts with him, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose son ribbed her about dropping his corn kernel in a jar bearing his mother's name at the WHO-TV's "Cast Your Kernel" contest.

And they all spent 20 minutes standing between hay bales on the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox to deliver their stump speeches and field questions from the crowds that gathered around them.

"Look at Trump's hair. This is the answer. This is the antidote," the bald Booker joked.

In interviews over three days at the fair, many attendees -- many from Iowa, but some from out of state who had come to share the first-in-the-nation caucus state's up-close view of the presidential primary field -- said they were still making up their minds.

That's the good news for low-polling contenders, like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, still looking to join the handful of top-tier candidates.

However, there was bad news for those long-shots, too: Most people said they had narrowed their lists to a few candidates to consider -- most like at least a couple of the top-polling candidates in the race -- and said there are simply too many Democrats running for president.

And even though Democratic candidates are split on some policy issues, such as whether to scrap private insurance in favor of a single-payer "Medicare for All" program, fair attendees said they were more focused on who can beat President Donald Trump.

Lauren de Sylva, a 36-year-old investor from California, said she "might not even know until I walk into the voting booth" who she'll vote for.

"A lot of it is actually going to be -- I hate to say it, but, you know -- projected general election polling at that time," she said.

Sue Groves, a 68-year-old retiree from West Virginia who traveled to the Iowa State Fair because "they don't come to West Virginia, especially Democratic candidates," said she is "still kind of deciding" who to back -- but she likes Warren and Booker.

"I don't want to hear Democratic candidates tearing each other down and giving Republicans ammunition to use in the general election," she said.

Most candidates spent several days in Iowa -- one at the fair, and the rest campaigning around the state.

They all trekked north to Clear Lake for Friday night's Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, a fundraiser for several county parties where organizers said all 1,600 tickets sold out at $35 a piece.

The Wing Ding, a tradition that emerged as a key stop for candidates to impress Democratic officials and activists in the 2008 and 2016 elections, was a perfect window into the drastically different approaches the two top-polling Democrats in Iowa are taking here and across the country.

Warren, the second-to-last speaker, came armed with a new plan for rural America and spent her five-minute speaking allotment diving into the weeds of how she'd help rural hospitals and fight big agriculture.

"We've had enough of an America where the government works better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. 2020 is our chance: We can make this government work for all of America," she said.

The last speaker -- immediately after Warren -- was Biden, who cast policy aside entirely to focus on Trump.

Biden argued that Trump is "an existential threat" who is eroding "the guardrails of society that we set up long ago to contain the abuse of power."

He compared Trump's presidency, which he said is "white nationalism" and "white supremacy," to the Ku Klux Klan's prominence in the 1920s.

"Donald Trump offers no moral leadership. He has no interest in unifying the country. There's no evidence the presidency has awakened his conscience," he said.

But even in the crowd's reactions, there was evidence that other candidates still have a chance to win Iowa Democrats over.

The two strongest receptions of the night -- by far -- were for Buttigieg and Booker.

A nearly-shouting Buttigieg earned the night's first standing ovation when he delivered a shortened, amped-up version of his argument that Democrats need to reclaim words like "freedom" and "patriotism."

In an implicit call for generational change, Buttigieg mixed in jabs at Trump such as: "How does a guy like Donald Trump ever get to be cheating distance from the Oval Office to begin with? That doesn't happen in ordinary times."

Later in the evening, Booker eschewed a shortened version of his stump speech to make note of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

He would not "let the slaughter of our fellow citizens just disappear in the next media cycle," he said.

"This is not a referendum on one guy in one office; this is a referendum on us and who we are going to be to each other. This is one of those moral moments in our nation that is going to define the moral character of our country," Booker said.

Booker earned the second standing ovation of the night with a rousing close, telling the crowd they can "overcome this darkness with our light. This is the call of our country. And it is time for the United States of America to rise again."

The next day, a two-hour drive south, the Democrats attended a gun safety town hall in Des Moines hosted by Everytown, Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action.

Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur who focuses on warning of the threat of automation and promising to give each American $1,000 per month, broke down in tears after a woman told him she'd lost her 4-year-old daughter to a stray bullet.

Yang hugged the woman. "I have a six- and three-year-old boy, and I was imagining..." before getting too choked up to immediately continue.

California Sen. Kamala Harris also drew headlines at the event, saying of the El Paso shooting that Trump, because of his racist comments, "didn't pull the trigger, but he's certainly been tweeting out the ammunition."

Amid the hoard of candidates, there was one Democrat new to the race and one who was absent.

Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor and activist who launched his campaign in early July after spending tens of millions of dollars on a campaign to impeach Trump, made his first showing at a "cattle call" -- the must-attend events in which voters get a chance to see all of the candidates on the same day -- in Clear Lake.

At the Wing Ding, Steyer argued that his personal fortune means he can successfully make the case that Trump is "a fraud and a failure."

But what really pumped up the crowd was his case for term limits.

"Speaking of term limits, I have six words for you: Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley," Steyer said, referring to the Senate Majority Leader and the chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, respectively.

"Every Democrat has good ideas, but if you want to get anything done, you have to fix our democracy first," he said.

Meanwhile, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke was off the trail. He remained at home in El Paso in the wake of last week's mass shooting in which a white supremacist who police say posted an online screed complaining of a "Hispanic invasion" killed 22 people in a Walmart there.

O'Rourke has been a fixture on cable news in recent days, and his campaign organized a moment of silence for victims of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton that other Democratic contenders attended before the Wing Ding.


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