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Scenes from Iowa State Fair: Surging Warren, Harris draw big crowds

DES MOINES — Six months before Iowans will caucus on a cold February night, the race to earn their support kicked off in earnest this weekend as candidates descended on the state fair and two different forums amid an uncertain race.
 
Iowa Democratic voters take their role in kicking off the voting process tremendously seriously, and few are willing to commit to a candidate with certainty. Those candidates are adjusting their strategies and tactics after an initial period of trial and error.
 
"We're really coming to the end of the first half," said Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic strategist who is unaligned this year. "I think you're going to see people go into the locker room and make adjustments."
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Though candidates have been traipsing through Iowa for months, voters are only now tuning in — ironically, after one candidate, Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellHouse Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists Outrage grows as Justice seeks to contain subpoena fallout Senate Judiciary begins investigation into DOJ lawmaker subpoenas MORE (D-Calif.), ended his bid.
 
 
Interviews with almost two dozen Iowa voters this weekend provide a clear snapshot of the contours of the race ahead that have begun to emerge. The front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building Saudis picked up drugs in Cairo used to kill Khashoggi: report Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting MORE, maintains a shaky and shrinking lead. At least four other candidates have built formidable teams and earned substantial support in Iowa, and several more beyond that are preparing to seize their own moments. 
 
Biden has led in all but one public poll in Iowa conducted over the last seven months, but his chief rival has changed. At the beginning of the contest, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders won't vote for bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Politics of discontent: Who will move to the center and win back Americans' trust? MORE (I-Vt.) was polling in second place. Though he retains loyal backers, his poll numbers have slumped as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAdams, Garcia lead in NYC mayor's race: poll Exclusive: Democrat exploring 'patriot tax' on multimillionaires' wealth McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris highlights COVID-19 vaccination safety, efficacy in SC event to kick off tour Kamala Harris is still not ready for primetime (much less 2024) Lara Trump calls on Americans at border to 'arm up and get guns and be ready' MORE (D-Calif.) have surged.
 
Illustrating their rise, both Warren and Harris drew larger and more enthusiastic crowds when they appeared at the Des Moines Register's Soapbox stage at the Iowa State Fair than did Biden — though Biden spoke Thursday, a weekday, and Warren and Harris spoke on a Saturday.
 
"We underestimate our capacity so, so badly. We've never lived up to it, but America is an idea. It's the most unique idea in the world," Biden told Iowans. "It's time to remember who in God's name we are."
 
A hundred feet away, voters casting their corn kernels at an entirely unscientific poll conducted by WHO-TV favored Biden by a slim margin, but few of those who voted for him said they were enthusiastic about his candidacy. 
 
"I like Joe Biden. I think I would prefer someone younger," said Laura Burkhalter, who works at a Des Moines art museum and cast her kernel for Warren. "It's time that we had a woman president."
 
Dennis Schwartz, who works for the state government in Colfax, cast his kernel for Buttigieg. Schwartz said Buttigieg is "very quick on his feet."
 
"I like Joe. I think he's a gentleman. I think he's past his prime," Schwartz said.
 
Biden's biggest strength is the perception that he is the candidate most capable of beating President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE — and that, beyond any other issue, is what Democratic voters are thinking about. 
 
"The first three issues that they think about when they're evaluating candidates is, can you beat Trump, can you beat Trump, and can you beat Trump," said Link.
 
Burt Bibbons stopped by the state fair while visiting his adult kids in Des Moines, where he voted for Biden.
 
"I've always been a policy person, but this particular year, it's who can beat Trump. If you don't win, it doesn't matter what your policies are," Bibbons said. "My No. 1 priority is to win."
 
The candidates themselves recognize that priority among voters, and they have adjusted their stump speeches accordingly. Both at the state fair and at a Wing Ding fundraiser in northern Iowa, each of the candidates presented themselves as the most credible challenger against Trump, drawing only minor contrasts between each other.
 
"I hope they keep focused on Donald Trump and not each other," said Patty Judge, the former lieutenant governor.
 
At that northern Iowa event, some of the lower-tier candidates showed the potential for a breakout moment. Buttigieg, once a cautious speaker, won a standing ovation as he fired up the crowd. Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Biden's European trip Teen who filmed Floyd murder awarded honorary Pulitzer Senate confirms first Muslim American federal judge MORE (D-N.J.) earned the loudest and most sustained applause of the night.
 
"This is not a referendum on one guy and one office. This is a referendum on us," Booker said. "It is time for America to rise again."
 
Two hours south, Biden clung to his corn kernel lead. By the end of Saturday, he had earned 24 percent of the vote, ahead of the 16 percent who preferred Buttigieg. Warren stood at 15 percent, Harris at 11 percent, Sanders at 9 percent and Booker and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials MORE (D-Hawaii) were tied at 4 percent.
 
But with six months to go, none of the voters interviewed this week said they were certain to caucus for the candidate they favor today. Everyone has a list of three or more candidates they are considering.
 
"The reason things change is that people are paying attention," said Rob Sand (D), the Iowa state auditor who is only just tuning in himself. "There is a real sense of responsibility here that I think is unique to Iowa."