DES MOINES, Iowa — 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?
Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, emerged as a central figure in the electability debate as new polls showed him gaining strength just eight days before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses on Feb. 3. 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.
The night before, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had addressed more than 1,000 Iowa voters at a raucous event in Ames.
As Ocasio-Cortez urged the crowd “not to shrink down or shy away, but to be comfortable that we are pushing for radical change,” Sanders offered a pragmatic appeal challenging the notion that a moderate Democrat would have a better chance of winning in November.
“If you think it is imperative that we beat Donald Trump, take a hard look at our campaign,” Sanders said, pointing to his own growing “multi-generational, multi-racial, working-class” base of support.
“I believe that our campaign, our energy, our grassroots movement, our agenda is the approach that will speak to working people who, in many cases, have given up on politics,” he said.
Before Sanders took the stage in the rural town of Perry on Sunday, leading surrogate and 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 arguments. 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.
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 ignored the political shifts during her first Sunday appearance, focusing instead on her core message of combating corruption as she faced several hundred voters at an elementary school gymnasium in Davenport.
“When you see a government that works great for those with money and is not working so great for everyone else, that is corruption pure and simple and we need to call it out for what it is,” Warren charged. “That’s why I’m in this 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.”