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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Democrats shift strategies for Iowa caucuses

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke takes questions about gun control after visiting the Skid Row Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Kamala Harris will “exponentially” increase the time she’s spending in Iowa. Bernie Sanders is shaking up his operations there and in New Hampshire. And Beto O’Rourke is going broader, turning up at such places as a San Quentin prison and an Arkansas gun show.

With just over four months until the Iowa caucuses usher in the battle for the Democratic nomination, candidates are shifting their approaches to the state. Some are betting the changes will pay off closer to the caucuses. Others are lowering expectations by looking beyond Iowa.

All are confronting the reality that the heady early days of their campaigns will soon collide with actual voting that could quickly force them out of the race.

“This is the place where you would see larger-scale course corrections,” said Democratic strategist Karen Finney. “Over the summer, there’s tinkering here or there, but with voting starting in four months, you have to be thinking about where you want to be by that point.”

Harris was the latest candidate to pivot after a challenging summer in which she’s struggled to catch up to early front-runner Joe Biden or capture the same energy as Elizabeth Warren. Juan Rodriguez, Harris’ campaign manager, told reporters Thursday that the California senator is going big in Iowa, dedicating 60 paid staffers to the state.

“We want to make sure we have a strong, top-three finish,” Rodriguez said, arguing that the Feb. 3 caucuses could “slingshot” Harris into the contests that quickly follow in New Hampshire, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states, including California.

As Harris and virtually every other Democratic contender descend on Iowa this weekend for the annual steak fry fundraiser, they’re well aware of what’s on the line. Iowa has repeatedly proved decisive in winnowing the presidential field — or providing a path to victory.

John Kerry, once the 2004 campaign’s early front-runner, was lagging behind upstart Howard Dean in the fall of 2003, only to shake up his campaign in October, reinvest heavily in Iowa and race to victory in the closing weeks. Likewise, Barack Obama’s late 2007 surge past better-known names including Hillary Clinton capped a once-unlikely win in Iowa that set him on the road to the nomination and presidency.

Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s campaign, said no one should be counted out despite polls that show a largely static top tier of candidates including Biden, Sanders and Warren.

“Iowa moves frickin’ fast and hard at the end, and it’s not necessarily who you’d expect that comes out on top,” he said. “You can go the whole way thinking Howard Dean has it locked up, and you find out the hard way that’s not how it works.”

With that in mind, many candidates are building sizable operations in Iowa. Biden will soon have 110 staffers in the state, including more than 80 in the field. Sanders has 72 staffers on the ground, and Warren has more than 65 staffers in the state.

Harris’ decision to add roughly 60 staffers in Iowa and spend more time on the ground there is a significant shift from the campaign she ran this summer. Until she arrived on Thursday, she was absent from Iowa for more than a month. Her campaign says she’ll be there every week starting in October.

Speaking to reporters after a campaign stop in Coralville, Harris said she’d be spending as much time in Iowa as possible in the coming months and joked that she “got very little sleep last night trying to figure out where my sweaters and my boots are.” But she called the decision to refocus her time on Iowa a “tradeoff” that was “frustrating” for her to make.

“The realities of the campaign, I cannot only be in Iowa because South Carolina is also a state that is very important, that I care about,” Harris said.

Matt Paul, who ran Clinton’s Iowa campaign in 2016, said Harris’ team caught the issue early enough.

“Give her credit,” he said. “She had a problem here, she hadn’t been here in a while, she listened, she corrected it, and she’s coming here.”

But Harris’ vulnerabilities aren’t limited to Iowa. With much of her summer spent on fundraising, she had a similarly light footprint in other early voting states.

She campaigned in New Hampshire once in the last two months. She also hasn’t been in South Carolina, where she’s counting on a strong showing among black voters, in two months but plans to double her organizing staff.

Other candidates are also planning a fall surge in Iowa. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has rapidly expanded his paid staffers in the state, bringing his total to 100, one of the field’s most expansive Iowa footprints.

His campaign is convening more than two dozen donors in Iowa this weekend to discuss strategy, according to an aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans.

Buttigieg plans to crisscross the state by bus this weekend, with visits to smaller cities in central and northern Iowa. He’s inviting the media to join him on the bus to engage more casually than he has in the past.

Sanders, meanwhile, recently severed ties with his Iowa political director, one of a series of staff shake-ups in key early voting states. The campaign also replaced Sanders’ New Hampshire state director.

Amy Klobuchar, who has focused heavily on Iowa since joining the race, is zeroing in this week on a “blue wall” tour of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states that supported Democrats for decades before flipping to President Donald Trump in 2016.

The Minnesota senator is stressing the similarities between her home state and the blue wall states, and her ability to win over voters in areas that backed Trump — an argument, she says, for why she would be the best Democratic nominee.

O’Rourke is also taking a wider view of the map. Since suspending his campaign for nearly two weeks to remain in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, after a mass shooting there that killed 22 people, he’s vowed to take the quest to deny Trump a second term directly to the president.

He’s still visiting early voting states but is traveling to unusual places like the Mississippi towns where recent immigration raids led to nearly 700 people arrested and an Arkansas gun show.

The idea is to distinguish O’Rourke in a crowded field. But Trippi said the strategy could prove fatal.

“It’s Iowa or nothing,” he said. “Touring every state but the early states is a big mistake.”


Summers reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, Sara Burnett in Chicago and Will Weissert in Boston contributed to this report.

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