Democrats battle in Iowa over ‘electability’ question
Speaking at a hotel often used for funeral wakes in Fort Madison, Joe Biden told voters there were three reasons to back him in Monday’s Iowa caucuses — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, who were each afraid he would be the Democratic presidential nominee.
In front of roughly 150 retirees, the former vice-president said North Korea had described him as a “rabid dog” who should be “beaten to death with a stick”, Russia was using internet bots to smear him on Facebook and Mr Trump was sending 80 surrogates to Iowa to hit him.
“Bless me father for they have sinned,” Mr Biden said, before adding: “Donald Trump surely doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
With only two days until the caucuses, Democrats are weighing up who they think is the most “electable” nominee — a moderate like “Uncle Joe”, one of the progressive senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or a younger candidate like Pete Buttigieg who is pitching himself as the fresh face.
At three campaign events on Friday, Mr Biden said he was best equipped to beat Mr Trump in November. He took aim at Mr Buttigieg, 38, the former South Bend mayor who is his main rival in the “moderate lane” of the Democratic race, saying it was no time for inexperience.
“The next president of the US is going to inherit a country that’s divided and a world in disarray. There’s going to be no time for on the job training,” Mr Biden said in Burlington.
Jerry Glasgow, a retiree at the event, said he was leaning towards Mr Biden after hearing him. “Mr Biden really has a lot more experience . . . on the international stage. I like that.”
But in multiple events in the final days, Mr Buttigieg shot back at Mr Biden, reminding Iowans that the last Democrats to win the nomination and then the White House were outsiders with little Washington experience: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“Biden [is] making the case that this is no time to take a risk on someone new,” Mr Buttigieg said hours after the Fort Madison event. “History has shown us, the greatest risk we could take is to deal with a fundamentally new challenge like the Donald Trump presidency . . . by falling back on the familiar and turning to the playbook that we were looking to in the past.”
While the polls show that there are four Democrats — including Senators Warren and Sanders — fighting it out for top place in Iowa, Mr Biden and Mr Buttigieg received most of the attention in recent days, partly because the senators were unable to campaign in Iowa since they had to remain in Washington for Mr Trump’s impeachment trial.
But Mr Biden and Mr Buttigieg are also potentially fighting to win fans of Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who polls show is in danger of not hitting the 15 per cent threshold at the caucuses, which would eliminate her. Her backers, who tend to be moderate, would then be permitted to switch their support to one of the other Democrats in a final, second round.
According to an average of the latest polls compiled by Real Clear Politics on Saturday, Mr Sanders was maintaining his recent lead with 24 per cent, followed by Mr Biden at 20 per cent. In the next group, Mr Buttigieg was leading Ms Warren by one point at 16 per cent.
With the potential for any one of the top four or five to win, a lot of attention is being paid to which candidates will emerge from Iowa with momentum in both the moderate camp and the progressive camp, where Ms Warren and Mr Sanders are battling against each other.
Mr Biden and Mr Buttigieg both stress the need to restore US credibility in the world and to rebuild alliances. But Mr Buttigieg has taken shots at Mr Biden and Mr Sanders over their recurring fight over the former vice-president’s decision to support the Iraq war in 2003, calling on Democrats to look to the future and not the past.
“Let’s leave the politics of the past in the past, and be ready to turn the page,” Mr Buttigieg said in Independence.
In the final stretch, Mr Buttigieg has been holding more events than Mr Biden and drawing much bigger crowds with a much wider age range. But Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who is campaigning for Mr Biden, told the Financial Times that judging the level of support for the former vice-president by the number of people at his events was a mistake.
“There’s a tendency . . . to think this is all about passion and energy. It’s also about conviction. Older folks have conviction and they’re going to show up,” said Mr Vilsack, adding that many Biden fans did not need to see him in person since they knew him already.
But Mr Buttigieg has also been drawing a decent amount of support from older voters. Speaking at a Buttigieg event in Davenport on the banks of Mississippi, Marilyn Hamilton, 75, said she decided to back the gay politician the first time that she saw him almost a year ago.
“The first time we heard him, it reminded us of Obama. And then my husband said, and JFK,” said Ms Hamilton.
Mr Buttigieg tapped that vein with his final pitch, saying Iowa had a record of changing history. He recalled campaigning for Mr Obama in 2008, and how the state helped pave the way to allowing same-sex marriage in the US, allowing him to marry his husband, Chasten.
“Iowa has this beautiful knack for changing what people think is possible,” he said, before sparking big applause: “Are you ready to make history together one more time on Monday?”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi