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In a cramped church basement a few miles from downtown, a crowd of more than 400 sweltered through a 90-minute discussion Sunday night with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described “democratic socialist” independent senator from Vermont who’s considering a run for president as a Democrat.
They followed a handwritten sign – “BERNIE SANDERS, DOWNSTAIRS” – to an overflow gathering near a folded-up Ping Pong table that was emotional, loud, passionate, sweaty, and angry.
“There is a lot of anger out there,” Sanders said, his signature Brooklyn accent drawing hoots and cheers. “Our job is get [people] angry at the right people for the right reasons.”
Sanders and those who came out to see him touched on a dizzying array of concerns. Social Security, trade, corporate welfare, campaign-finance reform, climate change, college costs, single-payer health care, Wall Street greed, immigration reform, Iraq War_" target="_blank">the Iraq War – they mixed to tell a story for Sanders and his followers where Republicans are definitely among the bad guys, but Democrats aren’t necessarily the good guys.
“The average person doesn’t perceive that the Democratic Party is standing up for the working people effectively,” Sanders said.
Clinton drew perhaps 20 times as many people a few hours earlier on Sunday, at her first Iowa visit in nearly seven years. But Sanders drew out far more passions. It felt like the mirror-image opposite of a tea party gathering, with similar righteous anger – and shots at the mainstream media – just with solutions that tack far left, not far right.
The display made clear that while Hillary Clinton may coast to the Democratic nomination, on a road that would start in Iowa, she won’t be able to do so without minding her left.
Sanders has said he’s visiting Iowa in part to decide whether he should run as a Democrat for president in 2016. But it’s not just about Sanders: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., continues to draw wide interest from Iowa voters, despite the fact that she’s said repeatedly that she’s not running for president.
Even at the steak fry, billed as Clinton’s big debut back to Iowa, Ready for Hillary supporters were met with Ready for Warren supporters.
“We weren't really sure what the reaction would be today, but a lot of people have been coming by, taking shirts and signs and just saying we love Elizabeth Warren, we support her,” said Erica Sagrans, Ready for Warren’s campaign manager, who noted that even people with Ready for Hillary buttons had been stopping by their booth eager to sign up.
While the group’s presence, on the surface, was not nearly as noticeable at the steak fry –- with their roughly 100 volunteers, billboards, and their iconic giant bus, Ready for Hillary commanded all the attention at the steak fry -— among Iowans, there was an emerging curiosity about Warren that was hard to ignore.
Donning a Ready for Hillary button prominently on her front jacket, one longtime Iowan, Marcia Fulton, said she would vote for Clinton if she ran, but quickly noted she was also intrigued by other candidates who could relate more to what she called “the Iowa thing.” Specifically, she said, Elizabeth Warren.
“Oh, Elizabeth Warren. Wow. I love Elizabeth Warren,” Fulton gushed. “Warren is someone…I just want to follow her, anywhere.”
And this wasn’t a lone sentiment. Robert Lorr, who came to the steak fry from Ames, Iowa, said he’d be conflicted if both Clinton and Warren ran. Vicki Perry from Spirit Lake said while Clinton’s a “great choice,” she wants to see who else is going to get in the race.
Later that evening, those who came out to the Bernie Sanders event expressed a similar desire to expand the field beyond just Clinton.
“I don't think we need a coronation of anybody,” said Des Moines resident, Steve Gude, who admitted Sanders would have a hard time winning the party’s nomination, but likes that at the least he is pushing the conversation left.
While Iowa Democrats are no means against a Clinton run, there’s a subtle, but potentially bubbling air of hesitance in many of their endorsements. And some stronger than others.
“I think Hillary is over the hill,” said Garry Klicker at Sanders’ event on Sunday. “She's a wonderful human being. I think she's good, but she's just been in too long.”