CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — The sun had barely risen when the first sign-waving, singing and shouting fans of Democratic presidential candidates showed up in this small town of 7,500 residents about 120 miles north of Des Moines.
By the time the doors opened at the historic Surf Ballroom, the street out front was a cacophony of competing bullhorns and chants.
The Democratic candidates themselves, given a mere five minutes to address more than a thousand Iowa Democratic activists from across rural northern parts of the state, pledged to compete in rural counties like Cerro Gordo, which voted Republican in 2016 for the first time since Ronald Reagan was on the ballot in 1980.
The parade of Democratic hopefuls on Friday highlighted their pledges to help rural areas, and blasted President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE's trade war that has cost farmers in Iowa already struggling to keep their small businesses afloat.
"Trade war by tweet is not working for our farmers," Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Trump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple MORE (D-Mass.) told Iowa Democrats.
Several candidates, including Warren, Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Manchin, Collins leading talks on overhauling election law, protecting election officials Senate's antitrust bill would raise consumer prices and lower our competitiveness MORE (D-Minn.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India Schumer vows to push forward with filibuster change: 'The fight is not over' MORE (D-N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Airlines suspend US flights in response to 5G deployment AT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout near certain airports MORE, released policy proposals this week aiming to address a growing health and economic crisis plaguing rural areas.
"An economic agenda for America should unite rural and urban," Klobuchar said.
Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyLobbying world Maryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Warning: Joe Biden's 'eat the rich' pitch may come back to bite you MORE (D-Md.) pointed to his own rural plan, which he rolled out months ago. Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Briahna Joy Gray: Last-minute push for voting legislation felt 'perfomative' Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service MORE (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats race to squash Cruz's Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill Biden addresses Coloradans after wildfires: 'Incredible courage and resolve' Equilibrium/Sustainability — Mars may start 'terraforming itself' MORE (D) have rolled out their own plans, and other candidates said they had proven capable of winning areas where Democrats fell flat in 2016.
"The path to victory isn't just through the coasts and the urban areas," Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE (D) said. "We need to be competitive both in big areas and in places just like here."
Cerro Gordo County is one of about 30 counties in Iowa that supported former President Obama twice — and then voted for President Trump in 2016. And, like two-thirds of American counties with fewer than 25,000 residents, it has lost population since 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Where the Democratic presidential debates were defined by the sharp contrasts candidates drew with each other, Friday's event — the annual Wing Ding fundraiser — was about making the case for oneself and against Trump.
"This is not a referendum on one guy and one office. This is a referendum on us," said Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Bass raises nearly million since launching LA mayor campaign CNN legal analyst knocks GOP senator over remark on Biden nominee MORE (D-N.J.), who drew perhaps the event's loudest and most sustained standing ovation. "It is time for America to rise again."
"We will defeat the most dangerous president in the history of this country," Sanders said. "We will not defeat Trump unless we have an agenda that speaks to the pain and realities of working families."
Some candidates offered implicit, if muted, contrasts with their rivals. Buttigieg seemed to take a veiled shot at Biden, a man who has held elective office since before the South Bend mayor was born.
"If we want to win, we can't look like we're the party of back to normal," Buttigieg said. He did not name Biden, who has pledged to return to an earlier and more civil era of politics.
Hickenlooper, whose campaign has recently lost several senior staffers as he struggles to distinguish himself in a crowded and diverse field, said it is governors, not senators, who are able to beat a sitting president.
"No sitting senator has ever beaten an incumbent president," Hickenlooper said. "Governors are closer to the people. We balance the budget every year and we get things done."
After Booker, Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar earned the longest sustained standing ovations from a crowd that stayed attentive through a grueling two-and-a-half hour program. Hickenlooper, New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioHochul raises .6 million since launching gubernatorial campaign De Blasio says he won't run for New York governor Watershed moment in NYC: New law allows noncitizens to vote MORE (D) and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) received the least enthusiastic — though respectful — applause.
Former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke says he raised record .2M since launching campaign for Texas governor Eleven interesting races to watch in 2022 Cruz bullish on his 2024 chances: 'The runner-up is almost always the next nominee' MORE (D-Texas) appeared by video, explaining his decision to stay home in El Paso after a devastating mass shooting killed nearly two dozen people last weekend.