Sen. Cory Booker speaking to supporters before the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding on Friday in Clear Lake, Iowa. | John Locher/AP Photo
CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — There was a moment of silence, friendly candidate-to-candidate photo bombs, even an extended exchange of hugs between candidates.
On Friday, the same crowd of 2020 Democrats that ripped each other apart on the national debate stage in Detroit transformed into a paragon of “Iowa nice” at the Wing Ding — making their best pitches to potential Iowa caucus-goers without eviscerating each other. Story Continued Below
Instead, the 22 candidates unloaded on President Donald Trump in a parade of speeches that framed the fight for the White House as a battle against hate and bigotry. Invoking last weekend’s mass shootings, they joined in calling for stronger gun laws. And they called for different approach to immigration.
The event came as the primary season in the first-in-the-nation voting state kicked into high gear with start of the annual state fair. The enthusiasm of voters was palpable: thousands packed into the historic venue, which at times grew so loud that speakers had to yell to be heard.
Cory Booker dedicated all of his time to gun violence, delivering what was perhaps the most fiery performance of the night.
“It is time for us to stand up with faith in our country, faith in our ideals, faith in each other and come together again. And stand together. And work together. And love together. And overcome his darkness with our light,” Booker roared as a thunderous crowd rose to its feet. “This is the call of our country and it is time for the United States of America to rise again!”
The affair, which stretched for three-and-a-half hours, offered a peek into what Democratic candidates believe motivates Iowa caucus-goers most: Beating Trump. The display of tenderness toward each other was a sharp contrast to last week’s debates in Detroit, where multiple on-stage skirmishes broke out among Democrats, pitting moderates and progressives against each other and even diminishing Barack Obama’s legacy.
Some Democrats later expressed concern over the perception that the primary was turning into an ugly, months-long spectacle of Democratic infighting that would only make Trump’s reelection that much more likely.
Democratic president candidates embrace after a moment of silence before the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding on Friday in Clear Lake, Iowa. | John Locher
In contrast to the debates, Friday’s format of successive individual speeches did not encourage candidates to lay into their primary rivals. Trump was a more logical target.
And so it went.
“Trade war by tweet is not working for our farmers,” Elizabeth Warren told the crowd, whose cheers and whistles grew so deafening by the end of her address, she struggled to shout over it.
Billionaire Tom Steyer took the stage in his Iowa debut as a presidential candidate and drew robust applause after referring to Trump as the “criminal in the White House,” and calling for the ouster of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell.
Pete Buttigieg accused Trump of “coddling white nationalists.” Alluding to the president’s clash with minority members of Congress, he spoke about his reverence for the American flag and how it symbolizes “the idea that we are able and indeed sometimes required to be critical of our leadership and when we do, no one will question our loyalty to the republic for which it stands, let alone tell us to go back to where we came from.”
A different scene played out just outside the venue before the event, where groups of supporters for each campaign formed cheering sections in an attempt to show organizational strength in the state.
But by early evening, the shouting on the street quieted — in one of the more poignant moments of the campaign — for a moment of silence for the victims of gun violence, an event put together by Beto O’Rourke’s staff. The former congressman from El Paso skipped the Wing Ding and state fair to support his home town in the aftermath of the shooting.
Walking to a plaza about a block from the venue, candidates including Buttigieg, Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet — and representatives of nearly every other campaign — were instructed to hug someone from a competing campaign and say, “I love you.”
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Bennet hugged Klobuchar. Buttigieg and Gillibrand embraced. So too did Andrew Yang and Klobuchar, as well as Bennet and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“When you hug somebody, I want you to hug them and tell them … ‘I love you, and we will win,’” said Iowa state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad.
The night also offered a glimpse into the unwieldiness of the two-dozen candidate Democratic field. In order to cram in that many speeches, time was limited to five minutes per person, barely giving contenders — or the audience — time to convey an argument for the nation’s highest office.
A sellout crowd of some 2,100 stood shoulder to shoulder, stuffing themselves into the iconic Surf Ballroom, the site of the last concert by Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P “the Big Bopper” Richardson before their death in a plane crash in 1959.
“This is a chance for people in this room to see how strong the candidates are and how they’re connecting,” Iowa Democratic Party State Chair Troy Price said. “For caucus-goers, there’s still people who haven’t plugged in yet. There are people who have been paying attention, who haven’t made up their minds yet.”
Candidates who hoped to have a chance at winning Iowa, were well aware of the must-show nature of the event, with 22, including all of the top tier contenders, offering a presence both inside and outside the venue.
“To have this caliber of candidates all under one roof might be historic,” said Wing Ding chair Randy Black. “We’ve got a little bit of Senate, we have members of Congress, governors, state reps, mayors. Somewhere in there, we’ll have a Democratic presidential nominee.”
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