Democrat rivals swarm Iowa for 11th-hour campaigning

by Elodie Cuzin
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Democratic White House hopeful candidate Joe Biden, the former vice president, greets a voter during a campaign event on January 31, 2020 in Burlington, Iowa

US Democratic Party candidates vying to take on Donald Trump in November elections on Saturday kicked off a final frenetic weekend of campaigning before Iowa state's all-important nomination caucuses.

Four US senators running for president paused their impeachment trial duties to dash to Iowa before Monday's vote launches the Democratic nomination contest in earnest.

After the Senate paved the way for Trump's expected acquittal of charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, the impeachment trial was put on hold, allowing all candidates to enjoy a breathless bout of last-minute campaigning.

Polls show a tight contest in the heartland state, where former vice president Joe Biden this week has been taking his "Soul of the Nation" bus tour to all corners in hopes it will help him cross the finish line in the top spot.

Former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is running in the same moderate lane as Biden, has been also covering the ground relentlessly, arguing it is time to turn the page to more forward-looking, galvanizing leadership.

Biden, 77, "is making the case that this is no time to take a risk on someone new," Buttigieg, who at 38 is less than half Biden's age, told a crowd at the Masonic Temple in the town of Clinton, Iowa on Friday.

"I would argue, this is not the time to take the risk of falling back on the familiar or relying on an old playbook that helped get us to this point," Buttigieg said.

The contest to see who challenges Trump in November's election is a long slog, and those with minimal support have been peeling off. Former congressman John Delaney dropped out Friday.

Eleven contenders remain in the race, and several have pitched up seeking to woo undecided Iowa voters, snatch victory here, and claim momentum going into the next contests, starting with New Hampshire on February 11.

Far-left Senator Bernie Sanders, who has a narrow lead in Iowa over Biden and Buttigieg, progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is in fourth place in polling, and fifth-place Senator Amy Klobuchar jetted in from Washington to mount 11th-hour pushes for support.

Trump's Senate impeachment trial has effectively tethered them to Washington, but the proceedings adjourned Friday after the chamber's Republican majority rejected Democratic efforts to subpoena witnesses.

Closing arguments in the Senate will be made Monday, with a final vote on acquittal Wednesday.

- 'Down to the wire' -

For two weeks, the senators in the race have been campaigning with one hand tied behind their back, sending surrogates including relatives and high-profile lawmakers to campaign in their stead.

Among them is Sanders, 78 and the oldest candidate in the race, who enjoys strong support from young voters.

His team organized a campaign concert featuring indie rock band Bon Iver on Friday near Des Moines.

Sanders phoned in from Washington, rallying supporters to "do everything you can" to boost caucus turnout.

The senator is set to host a similar show featuring Vampire Weekend on Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

Warren arrived late Friday in Des Moines, while Klobuchar is lined up for four events Saturday, at a brewery, a music venue, a women's club and a school.

Nearly half of Democratic Iowa voters said they remained undecided before Monday's caucuses -- local meetings where participants align behind their candidates in one of the country's quirkier voting systems.

Among them is Stephanie Hull, a 21-year-old student who came to see Biden in the small town of Burlington.

"It's a possibility" that Biden, President Barack Obama's White House wingman, earns her vote, she told AFP.

"I have a few other favorites right now, so it's going to be down to the wire."

Biden, whose global experience is unmatched among the candidates, has declared Trump a danger to America due to his erratic foreign policy.

"The next president of the United States is going to inherit a country that's divided and a world in disarray," Biden told attendees in his half-hour stump speech.

"There's going to be no time for on-the-job training."

Biden's blue-collar roots and his uncanny ability to connect personally with voters are assets in a state used to face-to-face encounters with candidates, although his Iowa speeches have lacked the passion that animates some rivals.

Despite agonizing over which political approach to take -- revolution or realism -- in the 2020 election, Iowa's Democratic Party chairman Troy Price said voters have unified around one goal.

"There's a lot of people that want to make sure that we defeat Donald Trump," Price said.

Retired teacher Pat Carr, 69, thinks Buttigieg -- a millennial, a military veteran and the first openly gay major party candidate for US president -- is best-suited to do that.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, he said, "I think Pete's a person who might be able to unite a little better than some of the others."

Carol Clark, 72, a retired teacher organizing a canvassing station in her home in Iowa City on Saturday, said she backed Warren.

"In the last campaign I was a Hillary (Clinton) supporter. It's about time we had a woman, don't you think?" she said.

Democratic White House hopeful candidate Joe Biden, the former vice president, greets a voter during a campaign event on January 31, 2020 in Burlington, Iowa

White House hopeful Pete Buttigieg, a former South Bend, Indiana mayor, has been barnstorming Iowa ahead of its first-in-the-nation Democratic nomination vote on February 3, 2020, while some rivals are in US President Donald Trump's impeachment trial

With presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders stuck in Washington for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, filmmaker and activist Michael Moore stood in the candidate's place at a campaign event in Clive, Iowa

Chart showing support for top candidates in the US Democratic presidential nomination race as of Jan 31, 2020, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average