Second-tier Democrats face do-or-die phase

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — As Iowa Democrats begin to coalesce around a few front-running candidates, those who are still struggling to build support in this first-in-the-nation caucus state are facing growing pressure to gain momentum — or quit.
 
As the clock ticks toward the February 3 caucuses, a culling season has descended on the Democratic field. The candidates outside of the top tier are taking steps to preserve resources, redeploy staff and place their fates in the hands of Iowa voters, sacrificing the national organizations they had hoped to build in favor of a longer-odds bet on breaking out in a single state where voters have a reputation for carefully considering their choices.
 
And while the candidates who have left the race so far were largely little-known to begin with, some of the contenders who started off with hopes of being in the top tier are now feeling the heat. The urgency of the moment crystalized on Friday when one of those once-promising candidates, former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeBiden calls for revoking key online legal protection Trump mocks Booker over suspended presidential campaign Julián Castro endorses Warren in 2020 race MORE (D-Texas), ended his campaign Friday.
 
"That's the job Iowa does, it winnows the field," said David Yepsen, the veteran commentator who hosts a weekly political affairs show on Iowa Public Television.
 
Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor MORE (D-Calif.), hemorrhaging campaign cash as her fundraising and poll numbers slump, has laid off some staff and dispatched others to Iowa. She said repeatedly this weekend she is "all-in" on Iowa, and on Friday, she offered a refreshed stump speech pitching herself as the fighter capable of taking on President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE.
 
"To win, we're going to need a nominee on that stage with Donald Trump who has the ability to go toe to toe with Donald Trump and Iowa — you're looking at her," Harris said Friday.
 
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroJayapal: 'We will end up with another Donald Trump' if the US doesn't elect a progressive Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Biden says he would consider Castro, O'Rourke for VP, Cabinet positions MORE said his campaign needed to raise $800,000 in the final ten days of October to continue the race, a goal he met on Halloween. But Saturday Castro's top aides told staffers they were free to look for new jobs, and that layoffs were still possible.
 
 
 
Carter finished well ahead of every other candidate who ran in the 1976 caucuses, though he only managed a second-place showing — to the uncommitted delegates who could not settle on a candidate.
 
Recent polls have showed caucus voters, notoriously reluctant to settle on a candidate before the last possible moment, nonetheless coalescing around a group of four front-runners: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Biden, Sanders tax plans would raise less revenue than claimed: studies MORE (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Overnight Defense: Trump downplays troops' concussion injuries in Iran attack | Dems offer case against Trump on day two of trial | UN links Saudis to hack of Bezos' phone MORE.
 
The most recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Iowa voters showed those top contenders in a tight contest for first place, with Warren at the top. Together, the candidates outside the top four drew a combined 18 percent — good enough to tie Buttigieg for third place.
 
The decisions to shed staff and focus on Iowa are a reflection of the dwindling number of opportunities any candidate has to make a major impression on voters and leap into the top tier.
 
No candidate has had a truly break-out moment in any of the televised debates that has sustained itself beyond a brief sugar high, and none have delivered the kind of race-altering performance that crystalizes their statuses like then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama marks MLK Day by honoring King for his 'poetic brilliance' and 'moral clarity' Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina National Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo MORE at the 2007 Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson dinner.
 
On Friday, at the Iowa Democratic Party's analogous Liberty and Justice Celebration, several candidates reached for the lofty rhetorical zeniths Obama achieved then. None moved the crowd of about 12,000 party activists and donors in the same way Obama brought down the house a dozen years ago.
 
Some of those in need of a big moment were victims of bad luck. Booker and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden leads Sanders by 7 in new national poll Sanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions MORE (D-Minn.) each performed well, but they spoke well after their allotted time slots because of scheduling overruns, and their addresses fell on a largely empty hall.
 
Yepsen said some of the more traditional candidates are being boxed out, too, by the emergence of unexpected contenders. Entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangBiden leads Sanders by 7 in new national poll Sanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll Sanders holds 4-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE has won a dedicated following among enthusiasts of his plan to remake American society through a universal basic income; his Yang Gang can recite much of their hero's stump speech verbatim. And hedge fund billionaire Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerTrump sets record for tweets as president on day House makes impeachment case Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' Krystal and Saagar interview Tom Steyer's Press Secretary MORE has spent $47 million on his own campaign in which he critiques the "corporate stranglehold that is controlling our government," as he said Friday.
 
For months, the pundit class within the Democratic Party has complained of an overly bloated field of candidates, one that has prevented the party from coalescing around a few choices who represent the various factions of the party. Now, voters seem to be taking the same attitude. 
 
"There is a feeling that you'll find from caucus-goers that there are good people [in the field] but there are too many of them," Yepsen said. "The field's too crowded."