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'RourkeJimmy Carter says his son smoked pot with Willie Nelson on White House roof O'Rourke endorses Kennedy for Senate: 'A champion for the values we're most proud of' 2020 Democrats do convention Zoom call 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 HarrisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump and Biden vie for Minnesota | Early voting begins in four states | Blue state GOP governors back Susan Collins Kamala Harris: Black Americans have been 'disproportionately harmed' by Trump Biden town hall draws 3.3 million viewers for CNN 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 TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy 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 CastroSanders says Democrats should have given more speaking time to progressives Castro says DNC should have put more Latino speakers on stage from beginning Jill Biden defends husband's cognitive ability from Trump attacks: 'It's ridiculous' 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 WarrenBiden's fiscal program: What is the likely market impact? Warren, Schumer introduce plan for next president to cancel ,000 in student debt The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Don't expect a government check anytime soon MORE (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg What Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Biden says Ginsburg successor should be picked by candidate who wins on Nov. 3 MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 Biden's fiscal program: What is the likely market impact? McConnell accuses Democrats of sowing division by 'downplaying progress' on election security MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death Bogeymen of the far left deserve a place in any Biden administration Overnight Defense: Woodward book causes new firestorm | Book says Trump lashed out at generals, told Woodward about secret weapons system | US withdrawing thousands of troops from Iraq 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 calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Senate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg Cruz: Trump should nominate a Supreme Court justice next week 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 KlobucharThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - White House moves closer to Pelosi on virus relief bill EPA delivers win for ethanol industry angered by waivers to refiners It's time for newspapers to stop endorsing presidential candidates 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 YangDoctor who allegedly assaulted Evelyn Yang arrested on federal charges The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden weighs in on police shootings | Who's moderating the debates | Trump trails in post-convention polls Buttigieg launches his own podcast 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 SteyerTV ads favored Biden 2-1 in past month Inslee calls Biden climate plan 'perfect for the moment' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration finalizes plan to open up Alaska wildlife refuge to drilling | California finalizes fuel efficiency deal with five automakers, undercutting Trump | Democrats use vulnerable GOP senators to get rare win on environment 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."