DES MOINES, Iowa – Within the Democrats' sprawling presidential contest is a smaller, yet critical competition among a handful of candidates jockeying to secure the backing of their party's establishment wing.
The first answers come Monday in the Iowa caucuses when voters begin sorting out the fight between progressive candidates, who are arguing for revolutionary change, and more moderate contenders, who many in the party believe have the better chance to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have been making the case in Iowa that they can assemble a broader coalition of voters in states essential to denying Trump's reelection. Waiting for them on the Super Tuesday primaries in March is Mike Bloomberg, an ideologically similar candidate who is skipping the early contests as he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in larger states.
Their candidacies are rooted in the idea of electability, and a belief that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are proposing ideas that excite core Democratic voters with sweeping, expensive calls for structural change but would fall well short of winning an electoral majority against the Republican incumbent.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a leading establishment figure, believes Biden enters the caucuses as the moderate front-runner, even as McAuliffe acknowledges he has questioned whether the 77-year-old former vice president can sustain his strength.
“I thought hard about running for president. I was concerned Biden was in my space,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “Part of my calculation was, ‘Could he hold up?' And I have to be honest with you, he has held up. We made the right decision.”
“Iowa will be a real determinant,” McAuliffe said. “This field will begin to change.”
The unofficial establishment primary will help determine the identity of the Democratic Party in 2020 as it frames the matchup against Trump. The three top Democrats in Iowa most often considered moderates oppose aggressive progressive priorities such as “Medicare for All,” yet their profiles offer sharply different views of the world.
Biden is a lifelong politician with working-class roots. The 38-year-old Buttigieg is a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and an openly gay ex-military intelligence officer. Klobuchar is a 59-year-old three-term Minnesota senator and a former county prosecutor.
In Iowa, the establishment-minded Democrats are working to assemble a coalition of voters that typically skews older, more rural and even includes non-Democrats. Strategists for Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar note they have specifically targeted moderate Republicans over the race's final days.
Klobuchar's team say she's the only candidate to have campaigned in all of the 31 counties in Iowa that previously backed President Barack Obama but flipped to Trump in 2016.
“We’re reaching out to our Democratic base but also looking to broaden the tent,” Klobuchar campaign manager Justin Buoen said, pointing to their efforts to win over moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans and disaffected Trump voters.
Buttigieg has focused on similar ground in Iowa, especially targeting the eastern cities that once boasted thousands of heavy equipment manufacturing jobs. He has also aggressively campaigned in small towns in the more conservative corners of the state.
Buttigieg’s campaign acknowledged that Buttigieg is drawing a contrast with Biden and Klobuchar, but disputed any suggestion that he's a centrist candidate. His campaign portrays him as someone pushing for change and is a Washington outsider who defies labels.
“This notion of lanes — progressive, moderate, left, center-left — Pete does not fit into that,” said deputy campaign Manager Hari Sevugan. “This is not about a label on the agenda that he has.”
The stakes are perhaps higher in Iowa for Buttigieg, who has shown surprising strength against far more experienced candidates. David Axelrod, who served as Obama's chief strategist, said Buttigieg must defeat Biden in Iowa to advance as the preferred moderate in the race.
“If Sanders were to win it and Buttigieg were second, I think Buttigieg is still in the hunt,” Axelrod said.
Biden has also focused his schedule over the past two months on rural and small-town Iowa, along with the more industrialized river towns of the eastern edge of the state. His ideal coalition, advisers say, would be a combination of working-class, noncollege educated voters, moderate Catholics and part of Iowa’s small but growing minority population, plus a smattering of independents and disaffected Republicans.
The campaign has leaned heavily into Biden’s electability argument, complete with endorsers such as former Secretary of State John Kerry, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2004, former Gov. Tom Vilsack and the state’s two first-term congresswomen.
Biden's campaign has also tried to capitalize on attacks from Republicans in and out of the state — including Trump and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst — who are trying to undermine his campaign by raising questions about Biden's family during Trump's impeachment trial. Biden and his allies insist that the baseless allegations of corruption are evidence that the GOP is afraid to face him in a general election.
Each of the candidates has weaknesses, although Biden's have been glaring in recent days.
Biden finished the last fundraising quarter with millions of dollars less less than most of his top tier rivals, although he finished the year with twice as much as Klobuchar in the bank.
He closed out the final week of caucus campaign with noticeably smaller, older and less energetic crowds than his rivals. On Friday night in Mount Pleasant, only around 80 people showed up for one appearance, roughly the same number drawn to see him in Ottumwa the night before. Both areas are home to the very white working-class voters that Biden counts as his base, and Vilsack was once mayor of Mount Pleasant.
Over the course of Thursday and Friday, his crowds never numbered more than 200, even as Buttigieg turned out three times that amount on some of his stops. By Saturday, Biden's crowds had begun to grow in size and energy, but they were still considerably smaller than his rivals'.
Biden's team has refused to predict victory despite polls showing him at or near the top of the field. Instead, aides believe he simply needs to finish in a cluster of candidates near the top.
In a memo to supporters released Friday, Biden's campaign manager Greg Schultz noted that, “Monday’s contest begins the process, it doesn’t end it.”
Meanwhile, the voters who will decide the contest aren't sure what to do.
Karen and David Scudiero, from North Liberty, are Republicans who say their party has abandoned them. They’re ready to vote for virtually anyone the Democrats run against Trump.
They say Biden and Klobuchar most closely align with their views on issues such as college affordability and health care.
David Scudiero, 66, left a Biden event Saturday still undecided, but leaning toward the former vice president. “I see him being able to work with other people,” he said.
His wife, Karen, was less certain. She felt Biden’s energy level was low.
“I’m having a tough time with his age, I’ll be honest. He looked older than I expected him to look," she said. "I can’t — his policies are great. It’s not big change. But I wrestle with that in my mind. Do we need big change? Or do we need little changes around the edges?"
Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe, Bill Barrow, Brian Slodysko and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.