DES MOINES — Democratic presidential hopefuls continued their blitz of Iowa on Saturday, with most of the field converging here for a pair of thematically opposed events that underscored the tricky nature of campaigning in an emotionally turbulent week for the nation.

On one hand was the ongoing Iowa State Fair, a cheeky political rite of passage during which politicians tend to be judged as much on policy as their willingness to sample deep-fried delicacies on a stick. Nine candidates were scheduled to appear at the fair in this first-in-the-nation caucus state.

At the same time, a few miles up the road, 17 Democratic hopefuls were set to participate in a more sobering event: A daylong forum on gun violence hastily organized after last week’s deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Among those scheduled to attend were former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the race’s early polling leaders.

The Iowa State Fair has long been the unofficial kickoff of the fall campaign season, when candidates ramp up their voter outreach and campaign operations in advance of next year’s Feb. 3 caucuses. Traditionally, politicians spend their time taking lighthearted photos with Iowa’s famed butter cow and posing with barn animals.

This year, that has been overtaken by last weekend’s deadly shootings.

The Democratic hopefuls have been forced to refocus their message – pressed by voters and reporters alike on new gun-control measures and President Trump’s perceived role in the Texas attack – the suspect in the El Paso shooting told authorities he was targeting “Mexicans.”

In recent days, the question du jour from the media contingent at the fair is whether Trump is racist. Touring the fair on Thursday, Biden snapped after being asked repeatedly by reporters whether he would join Warren and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, in declaring Trump to be a white supremacist.

“You just want me to say the words so I sound like everyone else,” Biden replied, clearly irritated.

Even candidates at the bottom of the polls have been forced to grapple with the question. On Friday, former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., was loudly and repeatedly heckled during his appearance at the fair’s political soapbox by a voter who demanded to know why the former congressman would not call Trump a white supremacist.

Delaney has said Trump enables white supremacy but has stopped short of labeling the president a white supremacist. “I actually don’t think there’s any difference,” Delaney told the man. “I think it’s awful. White supremacy and hate, white nationalism, the people who enable it are no different than the people who practice it.”

Unsatisfied, the fairgoer urged Delaney to drop out of the presidential race.

On Friday night, most of the Democratic field traveled to the far northern part of the state to speak at the annual Iowa Wing Ding, a party fundraiser held at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, the venue where Buddy Holly played his final show before he perished in a plane crash in a nearby cornfield. The event has become a pivotal stop for Democratic hopefuls over the years, including Barack Obama, whose 2007 appearance here signaled his growing momentum in the 2008 campaign.

On the street outside the event, there was a circuslike atmosphere as campaigns competed to have the biggest presence. People waved signs and belted out chants as cars drove by. Inside, candidates smiled and posed for selfies with voters.

But before the event began, the candidates paused for a moment of silence to honor the victims of last week’s shootings. On stage, most focused their remarks on trashing Trump and Republicans for their inaction on gun-control measures and coddling white supremacy.

In a speech that at times felt like a sermon, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., invoked the “moral moment” facing the country and called on Democrats to help overcome Trump’s “darkness with our light.”

“This is a week where I will not let the slaughter of our fellow citizens just disappear within the next media cycle,” he said.

Some of the loudest applause of the night went to South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who declared in a fiery speech that “white nationalism is a national security threat to this country.” He also appeared to offer an implicit contrast to Biden’s stated belief that defeating Trump will solve the country’s most immediate problems, saying, “We can’t look like the party of ‘back to normal.’ ”

Speaking last, Biden devoted the entirety of his remarks to the urgent need to defeat Trump, calling him an “existential threat” to the future of the country. And unlike his prickly exchange with reporters at the fair, Biden seemed more willing to call out Trump for his racism. “Let’s call this what it is. This is white nationalism. This is white supremacy,” Biden declared.


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