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2020 Democrat Joe Sestak Tries To Gain Attention In Iowa


Two dozen Democrats are running for president, but only a handful of them are grabbing any attention. For the candidates who can't even register 1% in the polls, the Iowa State Fair can be a rare moment in the spotlight. NPR's Scott Detrow is in Des Moines.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When California Senator Kamala Harris entered the state fair Saturday, the media swarm was so big that her staff had to yell out stage directions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't cover each other's shots, all right?

DETROW: A few hours later, former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak strolled in almost all by himself. As an admiral, Sestak once commanded an aircraft carrier.

JOE SESTAK: There on the aircraft carrier, I had 60, 80. And if I needed more, they gave them to me, of a staff. But here, we're living out of Econo Lodge. We get about 39 bucks a night, I think.

DETROW: Sestak is spending almost all his time in Iowa. He served two House terms and ran for Senate twice, but the military metaphors stick.

SESTAK: But I need to secure this beachhead first and to at least make sure that as I left it and started marching towards Berlin off of Normandy Beach.

DETROW: Sestak is focusing his run on moderate voters, saying he can reach across the aisle with his national security background. While other campaigns air ads and travel the state and charter buses, Sestak hits up local parades.

SESTAK: You run back and forth and shake every hand, point to that brochure right there. And I say, that's me, retired Navy admiral. Take me home. Read about me tonight.

DETROW: Most polls have Sestak at 0%. But no matter the polling numbers, each candidate gets 20 minutes to speak at the fair.


SESTAK: Trump is not the problem. He is the symptom of the problem where Americans no longer believe that the system works for them.

DETROW: As Sestak speaks, Iowan Mike McConahey glances at the list of the day's candidates.

MIKE MCCONAHEY: We were just trying to figure out who he was. So - but I was interested in hearing everything.

DETROW: Sestak's steep uphill climb is just an extreme example of what many candidates are facing at this point. Five candidates are taking up most of the attention; the rest are doing what they can to stay in the mix. As Sestak spoke, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was serving beer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you so much, Governor. I appreciate it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, best of luck.

SUE DVORSKY: We're not going to caucus for 20 people. There's not 20 corners in a room. So that's not going to happen.

DETROW: Sue Dvorsky is a prominent Iowa Democratic organizer and former party chair who just endorsed Harris. She's confident the field will begin to winnow soon.

DVORSKY: If they don't click, the forces that work in every campaign will work on them, and they will make individual campaign decisions.

DETROW: But for now, candidates like Sestak are still thinking of what they'd do in the White House. Sestak has his first day as president planned out. He says he'll hold a big town hall in the Midwest, then fly to France.

SESTAK: And I'm going to convene the Paris Accord and say we've got to increase our commitments and enforce them or we're not going to make this together. And then on the way back, I announced training for a lifetime.

DETROW: Is this the same day or is it separate days?

SESTAK: It's all the same day. Or at least it's a Joe Sestak day. Well, I'm not going to sleep during it, all right?

DETROW: If Sestak is even going to make it onto a debate stage, he's going to need a lot more days like that.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.