Trump, guns and health care were the main themes struck by Kamala Harris, as she made her pitch across Iowa this week in her new campaign bus, hoping to regain some lost ground in recent polls.
A tan lab-mix named Angel stood at the middle of the stone driveway and watched as the large, black bus with giant letters spelling KA-MA-LA in bright yellow, purple and fuchsia crept past leafy green trees and shrubbery to Coyote Run Farm. The California senator popped out in Timberland boots, a blue shirt and jeans to make a lap around the farm with the owner as a wall of photojournalists bumped and stepped on one another trying to capture the 2020 candidate's every movement and utterance.
This was day four of Harris' "3AM Agenda" bus tour through the Hawkeye state, and it landed her in rural Lacona, Iowa. Harris' 3AM pitch addresses the kitchen-table concerns that "wake people up at night." The hundreds who came to see Harris were excited and cheered her on and she slammed President Trump's Oval Office tenure. Still, many were hesitant to throw their support to Harris, whom they view as a newcomer to the national stage, as well as to Iowa. Harris, until this bus tour had spent little time in the state, making just six stops here since she announced her presidential bid in January.
Her recent five-day bus tour, which wrapped up Monday, took Harris through 16 stops and 11 counties in the first caucus state. She has faced some criticism for not prioritizing Iowa after she cancelled a late May trip to participate in a disaster aid vote in Washington.
It was evident that Harris' campaign was determined to change previous perceptions of her in the state, and that started by complementing her ground tour with some air support. On the first day of the tour, the campaign had announced a "six-figure" TV and digital ad buy, the first 2020 top-tier candidate to make such an expenditure.
On the ground, Harris first hit Sioux City on the Missouri River, then made its way toward Des Moines for the Iowa State Fair before heading east to Davenport on the Mississippi River. At each stop, Harris made her 3AM pitch, talking about her middle-class tax cut, her "Medicare-for-All" proposal and her plan to raise teacher salaries.
"It was from my conversations [in Iowa] that I came up with our Teacher Pay proposal that is going to be the first in our country's history federal investment in closing the teacher pay gap," said Harris at a Sioux City rally.
She also dropped some new lines into her regular stump speech. At a Saturday gun forum organized after the El Paso mass shooting, Harris told the audience, to a loud applause, "People say to me, '(Did) Donald Trump cause those-those folks to be killed?' Well no, of course he didn't pull the trigger, but he's certainly been tweetin' out the ammunition."
The 2020 candidate held four rallies, stopped at a Storm Lake taqueria, a Des Moines Baptist church, greeted voters at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding and landed at the Iowa State Fair with a big endorsement from an Iowa Democratic power-couple, Bob and Sue Dvorsky. The fair included a campaign tradition – a stop at the pork chop flip where Harris told news reporters, "I think I can also flip Republicans."
The reaction to Harris varied across the state, but a few things stood out: yielded some of the largest applause lines at every event. Not everyone agreed with her health care proposal – but nearly everyone who came to see the senator was shopping around less on issues and more on one measure: Who can beat Donald Trump?
"Her health care program, I've got a little bit a difference with that but I'm all right with that. She's just a strong, type of person that's going to take on Donald Trump really – the type of person we need. Just like all Democrats, we want somebody that will win," said Kirk Scheelhaase, a farmer who told CBS New he's also a Biden supporter. Scheelhaase said he was still enthusiastic about seeing Harris at her Thursday rally in Sioux City, Iowa.
In Storm Lake, a voter who brought up health care with the senator may not have gotten the answer he was looking for. "We get our bill/statements … Medicare pays about less than half for doctors – about half for other things. I mean, they pay very small portions," the voter said. "Somebody else is going to pay for all them things." Harris responded, "Well, [what] part of what my plan would do is extend it so it would also cover vision, dental and hearing aids, which of course right now Medicare does not cover. But the idea is we have everybody insured."
At a teacher pay roundtable in Fort Dodge, CBS News asked Carol Ernst if she had settled on voting for Harris. "No, I have not," said Ernst, "I'm just looking at some of the issues for me, personally. The issues that I'm most concerned about are health care and gun legislation."
About an hour south of Des Moines, neither guns nor health care were the focus for Loras College senior Jake Janson. The Coyote Run Farm intern is passionate about climate change, and he told Harris he planned to caucus for the candidate who would make climate change "the biggest priority."
"I don't know if I want to have kids — like, it's just that scary," said Janson, who said he would consider Harris but for now, climate-focused Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is his first pick.
Climate change had come up at an earlier event, too. Harris said at Storm Lake stop, "The way I used to joke about it is that I care about the environment, not because I have any particular interest in hugging a tree, but I have a very strong interesting in hugging a healthy baby."
In Mount Pleasant, which went for Donald Trump in 2016, a young couple left Harris' rally telling CBS News that while they feel both sides are too extreme, they think they might end up voting for Mr. Trump again. "We need to find a middle ground on these topics," said the husband, who only identified himself as Leroy. The topics he was referring to were gun control and Medicare for All.
Health care remains a subject of concern among voters here. In Muscatine, Harris played bingo with a few senior citizens and was scolded by one. "Just leave our health care system alone," the older woman warned.
But at one of the last events – a health care roundtable in in Burlington, two voters told CBS News, they're more concerned about student loan debt – and that's why they'll be voting for Elizabeth Warren.
"They can't buy cars, or they can't buy homes," Debra Bowen said of college students saddled with debt. "Or they can't afford to change jobs and do all sorts of things that impact the economy. They can't have the lives that we had, and so something has to be done… and what [Harris is] planning doesn't come anywhere close to helping anybody, except helping maybe public teachers."
"We do have a really progressive stronghold I think here in the party," said Doan Shulte, who attended the Burlington event. "A lot of Bernie people were disenfranchised when Hillary got [the nomination]." Harris came across as "more centrist" to Shulte, who said she's narrowed her choices down to Harris, Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Many of the diehard Iowa caucus goers are watching the ground game closely — who has the most staff on the ground, who's spending the most time in the state.
By the time the Iowa State Fair rolled around last week, Warren's team boasted around 65 full-time, paid staff, nine offices and a team of interns. Sanders has a total of 66 paid full-time staff with ten offices and two interns in Iowa.
Harris' campaign has confirmed she has around 50 paid, full-time staff, plus 15 fellows. She has also seven offices in the state, many of which opened on August 1. While Joe Biden built what appears to be one of the largest ground games in the state, he also started much later than some of the other campaigns. Biden has 75 paid full-time staff and plans to have at least 12 offices open by the end of the summer.
During the bus tour, Harris attracted enthusiastic crowds of 300-400, but recent polling suggests she still has some catching up to do.
An August 8 Monmouth University Poll showed Biden leading the state with 28% support, with Warren trailing at 19%. Sanders dipped to 9% and Harris came in at 11%, up from 7%.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Harris came in at 7% in the most recent Monmouth poll.