DES MOINES, Iowa — With marching bands, drum lines, hundreds of yard signs and at least one firetruck, Democratic presidential candidates made a colorful and often loud pitch to Iowa Democrats at the Steak Fry fundraiser in Des Moines on Saturday.

The event, a fundraiser for the Polk County Democratic Party and one of the biggest remaining opportunities for candidates to flex their organizing muscles in Iowa before the caucuses, comes as a number of candidates are facing an uncertain future in the race and shaking up and ramping up their campaigns in an effort to break out of the pack.

With thousands of Iowa Democrats braving ominous gray skies and intermittent rain, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, punctuating a summer-long buildup in Iowa, drew one of the most robust receptions.

Pete Buttigieg

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

To the chants of, “Pete, Pete, Pete,” the once-little-known candidate began his speech joking, “I guess I can cross out the part where it says my name is Pete Buttigieg.”

Likewise, California Sen. Kamala Harris, who announced Thursday she is going all-in on Iowa in hopes of a top-three finish, despite lagging in national and Iowa polls. “I’m moving to Iowa,” Harris thundered, albeit facetiously, from the stage at a sprawling riverside park in Des Moines.

With just over four months until Iowans launch the 2020 Democratic nominating contest on Feb. 3, candidates have begun sharpening their contrasts, particularly with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is building a robust Iowa campaign.

Candidates worked to turn out their supporters in force. Of the 12,000 attending, 9,000 of the tickets were provided by the campaigns. Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaigns competed for turnout, with both turning out well over 1,000, as Biden hoped to stamp his recent place atop Iowa polls.

Part festival, part organizing exercise, the daylong event was quintessentially Iowa, with its roots from veteran former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who began the event more than 40 years ago as a House member, then later five-term Senator, who retired in 2015.

Revived by the Polk County Democratic Party after Harkin’s retirement, Democrats of all ages and their families enjoyed the traditional steaks – 10,500 were grilled by volunteers – but also had the option to order from a food truck or visit a craft beer tent.

There was also artichoke salad and grilled chicken, hardly on the menu during the Harkin days.

The county’s Democratic chairman, Sean Bagniewski, said the event has a “modern twist.”

Amy Klobuchar

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar works the grill during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

“That’s the future of the party – it’s gonna be more women in positions of leadership, it’s gonna be more people of color, and it’s going to be more young people,” he said.

What hasn’t changed is the event’s significance for the candidates. When Barack Obama marched into the 2007 Iowa steak fry flanked by 1,000 supporters, skeptical Iowans were put on notice that he could win the state’s caucus. Bagniewski said that, like 2007, Democrats are looking for someone who can show they have the organizational strength to win.

But the increasingly pointed fall stretch to the caucuses stayed positive Saturday.

While Buttigieg and Biden have recently pressed Warren on whether she would propose raising taxes to pay for her universal health care proposal, both used uplifting messages Saturday.

“I’ve got some good news, in only 135 days, you get to be the very first in the country, to lead us away from the horror show, from this reality show,” Buttigieg said.

Likewise, Biden continued his upbeat call for Americans to “pick our heads up, remember who we are, we are the United States of America.”


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