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Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren make final case in Iowa caucuses

Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren make final case in Iowa caucuses
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Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at an event in Marshalltown, Iowa on Jan. 26, 2020 ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

Jacob Pramuk | CNBC

At least four Democrats have a good chance to leave Monday’s first-in-the-nation Iowa presidential caucuses with the most delegates.

The 2020 White House hopefuls have deployed vastly different messages as they claw for support at the top of the field in Iowa. Most of their appeals relate — in one way or another — to their ability to deny President Donald Trump a second term in November.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg have led the pack in the Hawkeye State for months. Recent polls show a tight race, and the fluid nature of the caucuses suggest any of the leading candidates could enjoy a surprisingly strong showing in the first nominating contest.

Democrats have criss-crossed Iowa in recent days in the final rush before the caucuses. Sanders and Warren have promised more substantive change in their bids to beat Trump, while Biden and Buttigieg have largely pushed for a return to normalcy or an end to partisan gridlock.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has edged ahead of Buttigieg in national polling averages, has not tried to compete in the first four nominating states, instead turning his attention and vast spending to the larger states that voter later on.

The four candidates’ closing arguments in Iowa reflect their broader motivations for running and why they think they’re best suited to defeat Trump.

Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a campaign event at La Poste January 26, 2020 in Perry, Iowa.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Sanders’ case for his ability to defeat Trump has stayed consistent: he promises to rein in what he calls abuses of workers and consumers by corporations and the wealthy, and enact a “Medicare for All” system to provide health insurance for every American. He has added wrinkles to his argument in the final days before Iowa.

Expanding the social safety net factors heavily into the Vermont senator’s messaging and appeal. However, he has more explicitly framed himself as the best candidate to protect Social Security and Medicare benefits — in the Democratic field or the general election.

A Sanders ad that started airing in Iowa on Thursday highlights Trump’s recent comments to CNBC suggesting he could consider reforming unspecified entitlements “at some point.” The term generally refers to social programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“We are not going to cut the programs that millions of seniors and people with disabilities depend upon. If they vote to cut Social Security, they may well not be returning to Washington,” Sanders says in the ad.

He has also repeatedly targeted Biden for past comments suggesting he would consider freezing Social Security spending. The former vice president denies he wants to do that.

The Sanders campaign also released a digital ad Friday featuring an Iowa man who says his lung function has deteriorated because he could not afford medications for a hereditary condition.

“My lungs may be failing, but I’m going to fight for Bernie with every breath I have left,” Jim Williams says in the ad.

Sanders’ message also took on stronger foreign policy tones in January after the U.S. killing of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, increased fears of war with Iran. He repeatedly highlighted his 2002 vote against authorizing military force in Iraq, which he calls “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country.”

Sanders has led most recent polls of Iowa, though the surveys suggest at least four candidates have a chance to end up with the most delegates.

Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign town hall event at the Iowa Memorial Union Ballroom at the University of Iowa January 27, 2020 in Iowa City, Iowa.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Biden has spent the final stretch in Iowa arguing he is best suited to beat Trump and restore a fundamental decency and stability to the White House. The former vice president has more frequently cast himself as a steady foreign policy hand in recent weeks as the specter of war with Iran rose.

His message to Iowa voters, at its core, has revolved around his ability to beat Trump. Biden’s campaign has repeatedly pointed to polls showing him beating Trump in hypothetical head-to-head matchups in November.

In a Thursday speech designed to contrast his character from Trump’s, the former vice president highlighted what he called his role in lifting swing-district Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms.

“I took on Trump all over the country — and beat him. In fact, we beat him like a drum — and in the process took back the majority in the House. We should remember that this year,” Biden said in Waukee, Iowa.

Biden issued a refrain during the speech that he has repeated throughout his campaign: “Character is on the ballot.” He said two Trump terms in the White House would “fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”

Biden also took aim at Trump’s foreign policy, saying the world will “sleep a little easier” with him in the White House because “they’ll no longer have to worry about Donald Trump waking up in the middle of the night and starting a war with a tweet.”

The former vice president, who frequently touts his middle class roots in Scranton, Pa., has not forgotten to add some economic appeal to his final argument. During a speech in Marshalltown, Iowa, last Sunday, he said that “we need a president that also understands that this country wasn’t built by bankers and CEOs.” Though he took care to stress — as he sometimes does in separating himself from Sanders — that “they’re not all bad guys.”

“They didn’t build the country. Ordinary people like my mom and dad and my grandmom and grandpop, people in this neighborhood, people in this room, ordinary people given half a chance,” he said.

Biden has consistently led the 2020 Democratic field in averages of national polls since he entered the race in April, but Sanders has recently cut into his edge. Sanders leapfrogged him in Iowa polling averages, though surveys suggest Biden still has a good chance to leave Iowa with the most delegates.

Multiple voters at Biden’s Marshalltown event said the increased tensions with Iran made them lean more toward supporting him in the caucuses.

Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a meet the candidate event at the Chickasaw Event Center January 29, 2020 in New HMapton, Iowa.

Win McNamee | Getty Images

Buttigieg has placed high stakes on a strong showing in Iowa, and in the final days before the caucus he has focused on “turning the page” on Trump’s presidency and winning over “future former Republicans” into his coalition.

The 38-year-old Democrat has placed an emphasis on his roots in the Midwest — and the literal and metaphorical distance between South Bend and Washington, D.C.

“In the face of unprecedented challenges, we need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect,” Buttigieg wrote in a post on Twitter on Wednesday.

During an interview with Radio Iowa last the week, he emphasized the point, arguing that “the best way to govern is also the best way to win which is to turn the page, to not get caught up in the political warfare and Washington mentality that led us to this point.”

The campaign has a lot to prove in Iowa, where it has devoted substantial resources. Buttigieg, who is polling in third in the state, has suggested that a strong showing could help him prove himself to voters who remain skeptical of what was once an extraordinarily longshot bid for the presidency, including many voters of color.

“We need to do very well in Iowa,” he told NBC News on Saturday. “We’re in it to win it.”

In the final days of the race before Iowa, Buttigieg also stepped up his attacks on Sanders and Biden. During a speech in the state, Buttigieg criticized Sanders for being too far to the left and for “a kind of politics that says you’ve got to go all the way here and nothing else counts.”

And he chided Biden for “saying that this is no time to take a risk on someone new.”

“History has shown us that the biggest risk we could take with a very important election coming up is to look to the same Washington playbook and recycle the same arguments and expect that to work against a president like Donald Trump who is new in kind,” Buttigieg said.

Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts and 2020 presidential candidate, waves during a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Warren’s closing argument to Iowa caucusgoers is that “women win” — and that she is the woman who will do so in 2020.

At town halls and campaign events around Iowa, Warren increasingly sounded the “women win” theme during the final days before the caucus.

Warren had long built her campaign around the theme of successful women-led movements, but leaned into discussions about her gender amid a controversy over whether or not a woman could defeat President Donald Trump that erupted during the January debate.

“Look, people are asking the question. So if they are asking the question, the right thing to do is let’s just address it head on,” Warren explained last week during an appearance on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes.”

An Iowa ad the campaign unveiled on Friday features a man who said he voted for Trump in 2016 and now supports Warren.

“I believe a woman can beat Trump. And I believe Elizabeth is that woman,” the man says in the ad.

True to form, Warren also approached the looming caucus with a slate of new plans. On Tuesday, amid an escalating outbreak of the new coronavirus, Warren released a plan to prevent and contain infectious diseases. On Wednesday, she outlined the steps she would take to curb election misinformation online.

Warren is entering the caucus bolstered by a ringing endorsement from the state’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, but facing declining support in state polls. Primary polls are notoriously less predictive than general election polls, however.

Warren polled in first place in Iowa for a period in October before slipping into fourth, behind Buttigieg, Biden and Sanders. Like Sanders, Warren was prevented from campaigning in Iowa for much of last week because of the impeachment trial in Washington.

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