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Democrats Campaign In Des Moines


More than a dozen presidential candidates descended on Des Moines yesterday. Still three months until Iowa's caucuses, but blocks of the city felt like a college game day.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) It's time, it's time, it's time for a woman in the White House. It's time, it's time, it's time for a woman in the White House.

SIMON: Chanting Elizabeth Warren supporters.

The marquee event was a Democratic fundraising dinner with an estimated 13,000 people in the crowd. Ahead of that main event, pregame pep rallies.


SIMON: And that's the Joe Biden drumline.

NPR's political correspondent Asma Khalid is in Des Moines. How are your ears, Asma?

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: (Laughter) They're all right. It was a long night.

SIMON: I notice there was a delay.

The fundraising dinner, of course, is the Liberty and Justice Celebration. This is a famous event. Tell us about it.

KHALID: Well, it's a fabled event, in part because in 2007, a guy named Barack Obama had a breakout moment here. Iowans say his speech at this event, which at the time was called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, is what propelled him to win the Iowa caucuses. And we all know what happened from there.

SIMON: Did anybody seem to have an Obama-level breakout yesterday?

KHALID: Scott, nothing as visionary. Both Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg had strong nights, enthusiastic crowds. Buttigieg was the first candidate to speak. And the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., presented himself as a voice of a new generation, someone who could bring calm back to the country.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: I am running to be the president who will stand amid the rubble, pick up the pieces of our divided nation and lead us toward real action to do right by Americans who have waited for far too long.

KHALID: And Warren didn't call anyone out by name, but what I thought was interesting was she took, clearly, issue with the vision that Pete Buttigieg has been offering. And she did offer some veiled criticism.


ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone. I'm running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families.

KHALID: You know, last night, there was a really clear moderate versus progressive divide onstage, and both Warren and Buttigieg insisted that this election is not just about defeating Trump; it's about providing a bigger vision. To me, the interesting question is whose strategy to do that is the one the Democrats here in Iowa will want?

SIMON: Joe Biden, of course, has been ahead in the polls, but that support has been slipping notably in Iowa. What have you been able to gather about how some voters there feel about him now and how he's trying to win them over, maybe win them back?

KHALID: So, Scott, I was out with him the last couple of days as he campaigned here in Iowa. And, you know, people would tell me that they are concerned about his age, sort of his relevancy. But last night onstage, he tried to position those potential weaknesses as strengths. He said that the world is going to be in disarray after Trump, and he will know what to do.


JOE BIDEN: And it's going to require a president on Day 1 who can unite the country, who has experience in being able to put together major initiatives to bring the country together. I know some of my colleagues say that's naive. Well, I've done it. That's been my whole career. And I promise you I know how to do it, and I will do it again.

SIMON: Asma, it's still a crowded primary field. I think 17 candidates still in there. Who else caught your attention in that group?

KHALID: Well, California Senator Kamala Harris had a very strong night. The question is this isn't 2007, so even if you have a strong speech, is it just too late this year? And what I will say, Scott, is maybe there is a sense that it's late. Just before the event began, we heard that former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke dropped out of the race. And basically, he said he realized he just does not have the ability to move forward successfully.

SIMON: NPR's Asma Khalid in Des Moines, thanks so much for being with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.