Nineteen of the 24 Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Iowa on Sunday at the largest cattle-call event for the historically large field to date, but none of them managed to leverage it into a star turn.
At a fundraiser for the Iowa Democratic Party at the DoubleTree convention center in downtown Cedar Rapids, candidate after candidate made their case in five-minute bursts, the first preview of what the first primary debate will look like later this month.
Dennis McDermott, a Cedar Rapids resident with a short-list of three candidates, was asked if the rest of the field started to blur together.
“Yes, it does,” she said. “It was just a lot of information, you know, and I guess it was somewhat more about personalities.”
For now, the candidates largely remained friendly without taking jabs at one another and left little daylight between themselves on most issues. The exception was former Vice President Joe Biden, who was absent from the stage. Two candidates took a shot at Biden from the stage, one by name.
“When I saw the program for today, I thought the same thing you all did, which is this: Joe Biden must really not like to travel,” Andrew Yang said to open his remarks, to some laughter from the audience. Biden is at his granddaughter’s graduation and has a trip planned for Iowa in the coming days. (Troy Price, the chair of the Iowa Democrats, said Sunday Biden called him to explain his absence.)
Another candidate took a less direct shot at him: “I don’t think there is room in our party for a Democratic candidate who does not support women’s full reproductive freedom,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a comment that came days after Biden changed his longstanding position on the Hyde Amendment, which restricts the use of federal money to pay for abortion.
The event was also used as a show of force for campaigns for their ground operations: Sen. Kamala Harris’s supporters had glow sticks; Cory Booker’s camp, light-up signs; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s people, lots and lots of signs. Former Rep. John Delaney reportedly brought in professional sign spinners. Local operatives said that while the flash may seem inconsequential, it’s a demonstration of campaigns’ ability to get people out, not necessarily an easy feat at an hours-long event with so many speakers.
Although many appreciated the playlist of candidates: “They all seemed to have some unique part of their personality that came through, and even some of the things they chose to talk about, there were differences that way,” Kristi Keast, a resident of Mount Vernon, said.
Candidates addressed everything from their plans to fight climate change, to disagreement within the party on how to defeat Donald Trump, to their support of reproductive rights. Throughout the event, there were no protesters in the room and no candidates were booed, a stark contrast for some candidates in the reception they had before California audiences last week. And when their five minutes on stage were up, candidates were ushered off with music like an overly gabby Oscar winner.
Some in the crowd appreciated the relative conformity on the issues.
“It’s comforting to know that they’re all for some of the same things,” Angela Healey, a Holy Cross resident, said. “It’s comforting to know that if one wins or the other one that you were hoping for loses, the other one will pick up and go in the direction that you wanted.”
Hours before the event started, camps were lined up outside of the convention center in hot but otherwise nice weather, chanting and holding signs for their candidates. The event came just a day after the Des Moines Register released its latest poll, with Biden still at the top followed by Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg in a tight race for second among likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers.
On the ground, a lot of local voters attending political events are still far from picking a top candidate, saying they’re still weighing their options. But most can point to a couple of candidates that have made their short list.
However, it was clear that candidates are still going to have to do something to set themselves apart from the rest of the field.
“When are we going to start seeing some real contrast?” an Iowa Democratic operative told TIME days before the event. “Somebody’s gotta throw a punch.”
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