CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — When Sen. Amy Klobuchar arrived at a ballroom attached to a Best Western here Sunday morning, her supporters’ green T-shirts said pretty much everything she wanted to tell Iowa Democratic voters.
“Amy Klobuchar beats Donald Trump,” the shirts read.
“We’ve got people who want to come with us and we need a candidate that’s going to bring them with us instead of shutting them out,” said Klobuchar, a Minnesota moderate seeking her party’s presidential nomination. She cited her history of electoral success in liberal, moderate and conservative parts of her state. “I know I can build a coalition to win. I have done it time and time again. I have won every race, every place, every time.”
The night before in the same city, another Democrat from the left end of the party’s political spectrum had the same message.
“The reason that we’re going to defeat Trump is that we are the campaign that is going to bring about the largest voter turnout in American history,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, told a raucous and overwhelmingly young crowd of 3,000. “We’re going to win because we are the campaign of energy and excitement, we are the campaign that is talking to the pain and the heartache of the working class of this country.”
As a tightly bunched field of Democrats made their final pitches before Iowa’s crucial caucuses Monday, they distilled their campaigns into one overriding message: I’m the one who can win.
Several touted their abilities to win back Pennsylvania and other swing states.
After months of clashes over how to approach health care, college affordability, and climate change, the Democrats racing across Iowa over the weekend instead attempted to reassure and sway anxious voters who above all else want to remove Trump, but often worry that none of the party’s candidates checks all the right boxes.
“Folks, I think it’s pretty simple. They don’t want me to be the nominee because they know I’ll beat him like a drum,” former Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday in North Liberty. “On caucus night, you can ruin Donald Trump’s night … because I’m coming.”
On Iowa television, two of the closing ads from Sen. Elizabeth Warren directly tackled concerns that her appeal to liberals might turn off swing voters. “In 2020, the person that can unite the party is Elizabeth Warren,” one speaker says.
At a small college gym in Cedar Rapids, with 20:20 on the scoreboard clock, Warren made a point of how many staffers she has picked up from other campaigns after candidates such as Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker dropped out.
“I’ve been building a campaign from the beginning that’s not a campaign that’s narrow,” she said Saturday. “It’s a campaign that says come on in, because we are in this fight together, this fight is our fight.”
Friday in Council Bluffs, 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., made his own unique appeal, telling a crowd of around 400 that “every time my party has won the White House, every time we’ve succeeded, it’s been with a candidate who has been focused on the future. ... It’s somebody who is opening the door to a new generation of leadership and moving past the political fights from before.”
The last-minute blitz in Iowa came as Democrats begin a sprint that, by the end of February, could go a long way toward deciding whom the party will nominate to take on Trump. Monday’s Iowa caucuses will provide the first tangible results and potentially winnow the large field.
Contests in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina follow soon after.
Polls, and his enthusiastic crowds, suggest that Sanders is surging toward the finish line. A victory for the Vermont senator could snowball, because he also has shown strength in the next two states.
Although most campaigns try to downplay expectations, his national co-chair did the opposite late Sunday afternoon.
“Baby, we will win the great state of Iowa,” Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, told a room of Sanders volunteers.
Still, recent surveys have suggested a tight race with widespread indecision and uncertainty, so the results Monday could still break in any number of directions. Adding to the unease, organizers of the highly anticipated and respected Des Moines Register poll withheld the survey late Saturday night, citing a potential flaw in the latest interviews.
“In other years, I knew exactly who I wanted and was pretty gung-ho. This year, I’m very undecided,” said Jessica Pfeiffer, 38, of Cedar Rapids. A Sanders supporter in 2016, she was wavering between him and Klobuchar, whom she saw as more likely to be able to win.
“My big goal is for Trump to be out of office, so I’m really focused on who can compete with that, not necessarily who aligns with my values,” Pfeiffer said.
Sanders and his allies, who often put his promises of a political revolution ahead of traditional politicking, repeatedly tried to counter concerns about his electoral prospects.
“Bernie is the candidate who Donald Trump will not be able to vilify as inauthentic or hypocritical,” Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife, said at the Cedar Rapids rally, held before a Vampire Weekend concert.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D., Wis.) pointed to Sanders’ success in Wisconsin during the 2016 primary, where he drew huge votes from independents and young people.
“When you do that, you win elections in places like Iowa and Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania and all of the states we need to win the White House,” Pocan told the crowd.
He was one of several candidates and surrogates who made arguments centered on who can win back swing states.
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, of Philadelphia, who campaigned for Biden over the weekend, said he would remind Iowans that “there is no plausible path" to victory without Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
“That has to be part of the consideration that primary voters make,” Boyle said. Biden, whose headquarters are in Center City, has made the state a key part of his electoral pitch.
Klobuchar argued that she has “a unique advantage” in “the middle of the country,” adding that she can win the same critical states, including Pennsylvania.
Republicans will caucus on Monday, too, though Trump faces no major opposition in his own party.
Iowa was fertile ground for him in 2016, when he defeated Hillary Clinton 51.2% to 41.7%, but Democrats picked up two U.S. House seats here in the 2018 midterms.
On Monday, the state won’t answer the question of whom Trump will face, but it will set the tone.
Klobuchar seemed to sum up the Democratic mood, delivering what she called advice to her party: “We better not screw this up.”