Cedar Rapids — There were so many Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa on Sunday that they were quite literally running into each other — on the street, in elevators, and in hallways and hotel lobbies. In total, 19 White House hopefuls descended upon the DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Complex for the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame.
They came to the event with one mission: to make their case to voters why they are best equipped to take on Donald Trump. The president will also visit the state Tuesday for a party fundraiser.
The pep rally-type gathering came as a new poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers found former Vice President Joe Biden leading the pack, but with evidence that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg are surging in the Hawkeye State. Among Democrats planning to caucus in person in February, 65% said defeating Mr. Trump was a greater priority than someone who aligned with their views on issues.
Biden was notably absent from the festivities attending his granddaughter's graduation, though he plans to campaign in the state Tuesday and Wednesday. But he was on the minds of some of the candidates in attendance.
Buttigieg said Democrats won't win by "playing it safe" or by promising a return to normalcy. "We are where we are because normal broke," he said, in what was seen as a dig at the former vice president.
Warren noted her steady efforts in the state, drawing subtle contrasts with Biden.
"I'm not spending my time with high dollar donors and with corporate lobbyists. I'm spending my time with you. That's how we build grassroots movement in America," said Warren, who was the first candidate to kick off her campaign in Iowa in January.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took aim at Biden's appeal to moderation. "I understand that there are some well-intentioned Democrats and candidates who believe that the best way forward is a 'middle ground' strategy that antagonizes no one, that stands up to nobody and that changes nothing," he said.
"In my view, that approach is not just bad public policy, but it is a failed political strategy that I fear could end up with the reelection of Donald Trump."
Sanders, who is slated to give a speech in defense of democratic socialism on Wednesday, also invited some criticism from fellow candidates trying to break through.
"We need a dreamer but also a doer. We must present a bold vision for the future but we must also acknowledge that the most effective attack the Republicans can level against us is one of socialism," said former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. When asked by CBS News about Sanders' dismissal of a middle ground strategy, Hickenlooper countered by asking whether Sanders had accomplished anything in Congress.
Others focused their efforts squarely on Mr. Trump. California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, said the president had "defrauded the American people."
"I'm here to ask for your support because I am prepared to make the case for America and to prosecute the case against Donald Trump," she said.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said he was running for president "because we can't take four more years of Donald Trump." But, he said, "beating Donald Trump is the floor — it is not the ceiling... We can't let this election be about what we are against. It must be about what we are for, who we are for."
Booker has one of the most extensive ground operations in the state and a loud cheering section in Cedar Rapids, but registered at 1% in the latest Iowa poll.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is also struggling to break through despite having campaigned throughout Iowa, said the race "is a marathon not a sprint. People don't know who I am yet. But I win... If you looked at anyone ahead at this point they were not the winners. I know I have time."
Voters and activists here say that while the field is starting to form into tiers, it is still a fluid race. "I do see a lot of enthusiasm for fresh faces," said Sarah Hogan, a retired school teacher from Delmar, who said Harris, Buttigieg, and Beto O'Rourke has captured the attention of Iowa voters.
"What are they fighting for, who are they fighting for, and can they get it done," is how Jim Eliason, chair of the Buena Vista County Democrats, described how he will be assessing the candidates. But defeating Mr. Trump is "probably the first priority, because the candidates' positions are relatively similar."
Ross Wilbur, former Mayor of Iowa City, said he was deciding between Harris and Booker. "We are looking for someone to inspire us, we are looking for someone who can deliver, and we are looking for someone with tenacity," he said. "Our Democracy will not work if we have someone in office who is acting outside of the law. So that's why it's critical that we make sure Donald Trump is a one term president."