Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint

Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint
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DES MOINES, Iowa — Two back-to-back debates marked a pivot point in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, earning millions of dollars and tens of thousands of new donors for leading and long-shot candidates alike — and kicking off a new phase that begins this week in cities and towns across Iowa.

Virtually all of the 25 contenders will make swings through the first-in-the-nation caucus state over the Fourth of July week, marching in parades and stumping in town halls and living room house parties.

The swarm descending on Iowa reflects the state's prominent place in the presidential primary field. Though Iowa will allocate less than 1 percent of the delegates who will attend the Democratic National Convention, the caucuses bestow something even more crucial than an early lead in the hunt for delegates: momentum.

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While social media channels and cable news have nationalized what is normally a retail contest, and even as more states set their primaries or caucuses for Super Tuesday, the reality of the media atmosphere today has amplified Iowa's already tremendous influence.

"Everything in presidential politics comes down to momentum. The first two or three states have a supersized and profound influence over the initial trajectory of the race," said David Jacobson, a Democratic strategist in California who is not aligned with any of the presidential candidates. "It's possible Super Tuesday can manipulate and reconfigure that trajectory, but it's more likely than not that March 3 will be a reflection of the accelerating momentum among top tier candidates from the first trio of state contests."

In modern history, only one Democratic candidate has ever won the party's presidential nomination without winning either in Iowa or New Hampshire — and that candidate, former President Clinton, did not contest Iowa because home state Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinWisconsin lawmaker gets buzz-cut after vowing not to cut hair until sign language bill passed Democratic debates kick off Iowa summer sprint Key endorsements: A who's who in early states MORE (D) was also in the race. Harkin retired in 2015.

Recent years are riddled with the corpses of campaigns that sought to downplay the importance of the first two early states. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) skipped early primaries in 1976 and 1992, and saw his bids collapse. Then-Sen. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreGinsburg calls proposal to eliminate Electoral College 'more theoretical than real' Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election Emma Thompson pens op-ed on climate change: 'Everything depends on what we do now' MORE (D-Tenn.) focused on Super Tuesday during his first run, in 1988, and failed.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani tears into Democrats after House opens probe into whether he pressured Ukraine to target Biden House Democrats launch probe into whether Trump, Giuliani pressured Ukraine to target Biden Ted Cruz fires back at Lori Lightfoot: 'Mayor, your anger is misplaced' MORE's (R) 2008 campaign abandoned Iowa, then New Hampshire, in hopes of winning the Florida primary; he lost. Then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) skipped Iowa in 2004 to focus on New Hampshire, and finished fifth, which he creatively dubbed a statistical tie for third.

"If you skip or downplay early states, one or more of your opponents will do well in Iowa or New Hampshire," said Bill Carrick, who managed former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's (D) 1988 presidential campaign. "They will then have momentum that gives them an advantage in Super Tuesday states."

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This election cycle, the temptation to focus on the several massive states like California, Texas and Massachusetts that will allocate their delegates on Super Tuesday is alluring. California voters will receive their ballots the same day Iowa voters caucus, on Feb. 3.

But far from being a late game-changer for a candidate who flops in early states, the massive stakes at play on Super Tuesday will elevate Iowa and New Hampshire even more than usual, Democrats said.

"You can't forgo the early states. The momentum built by finishing strong or beating expectations influences how people will vote on Super Tuesday — especially with a record number of people in the race where the vote is being split," said Stephanie Cutter, a former top official on campaigns for former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California Hillary Clinton: Voter suppression has led to 'crisis in democracy' in the US MORE.

Though the 2020 race has dominated cable news and Washington political circles, Iowa Democrats are only now beginning to seriously tune in, spurred in part by the two debates that earned sky-high ratings across the country. The viral moments that capture YouTube clicks and Twitter shares are less valuable than retail political skills in the state.

"Out here in Iowa, we're used to being more one-on-one with a candidate and having a half an hour," said Mark Anderson, a Democrat from Windsor Heights.

Interviews with two dozen caucusgoers this past weekend suggest the race in Iowa is wide open, and strong debate performances earned some candidates the chance to make inroads with those who are suddenly giving them a first or second look.

Most activists said they were impressed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE (D-Mass.), whose place at the center of the stage in Wednesday's debate gave her a prominent platform.

"It's nice to see a woman candidate, somebody who's fresh-faced, somebody who handles conflict so well," Katrina Serfling, a mental health counselor in Des Moines, said of Warren. "She handles it with so much grace. It's reminiscent of Obama."

Many spotlighted former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCalifornia poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegCalifornia poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Buttigieg unveils disaster response plan focused on communities Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE (D) as the candidates who stood out most on stage.

"I thought Julián Castro came off pretty strong," said Mike Schaeffer, a software developer in Grinnell. Schaeffer is also considering former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Poll: Biden holds five-point lead over Warren among New York Democrats MORE and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyTrump campaign mocks Democratic debate: 'Another informercial for President Trump' The Hill's 12:30 Report: House panel approves impeachment powers Sanders slips in NH, Biden and Warren in statistical dead heat MORE (D-Md.), who has quietly built a huge staff of organizers in Iowa.

Others said the debates left them more open to a broader range of candidates than they had been before.

"It's hard to know what to think at this point," said Rowan Queathen, a graduate student living in Grinnell.

Those voters will have a new opportunity to see the candidates up close this week. In fact, most voters will have trouble avoiding the candidates.

On Independence Day, Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockPartisan divisions sharpen as independent voters fade Jeff Bridges calls for donations to get his 'good buddy' Bullock 'up on that debate stage' The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate MORE (D) will start his day with a 5K race in Cedar Rapids. Biden and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeOvernight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on 'attempts to politicize' NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks Five top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum Yang campaign says it received 450K entries for 'Freedom Dividend' contest MORE (D-Texas) will parade through Independence, Iowa.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth Kamala Harris calls for new investigation into Kavanaugh allegations MORE (I-Vt.) will join parades in Ames, Windsor Heights and Pella. Buttigieg will parade through Storm Lake, while Harris starts her day with a house party in Indianola before moving west for a barbecue in Council Bluffs. O'Rourke caps the day at an Iowa Cubs baseball game in Des Moines.

Not every voter is open to supporting every candidate. Several Iowans said they already had the impression that some candidates would be better fits for Cabinet posts than the Oval Office.

"A lot of these people are running for vice president," said Paul Tjossem, a physics professor at Grinnell College. "That's what this is about."