Democratic field descends on Iowa for all-important state fair

PHOTO: People walk near food kiosks at the Iowa State Fair, on Aug. 19, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.PlayChristian Science Monitor via Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Donald Trump on Iowa State Fair Helicopter: 'The Kids Love It'

Democratic candidates for president were flocking to the Iowa State Fair this week, an annual event filled with parades, pumpkin squashes and pork chops -- marking the symbolic start to caucus season when the campaigns are expected to shift into high gear.

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Wedged between the second and third round of debates, from Thursday to Aug. 18, the state fair offers a key political test for the contenders, who are moving into the tougher, pressure-filled campaign months ahead.

After criss-crossing the Hawkeye state for the first half of the year, more than 20 presidential hopefuls who seek to deny President Donald Trump a second term converge on the state fair for the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox -- a hallmark event to pitch to a large crowd of potential caucus-goers six months before the first ballots are cast in 2020.

"The Iowa State Fair is one of the biggest in the country, and it's a great opportunity for candidates to get their message out and listen to voters' concerns on the issues," said Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price. "I expect subjects like agriculture, climate change and rural development to come up in conversation given the number of rural Iowans who will be showcasing their goods over the next 10 days."

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 15, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, FILE
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 15, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Between appearances at the Wing Ding dinner, the Des Moines Register Soapbox and the Dickinson County Dems Summer Sizzler, candidates are eager to make inroads within the state party and foster relationships that will be crucial to capturing the all-important delegates who will decide who becomes the party's nominee.

For the polling front-runners in the primary, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris, along with the race's fundraising powerhouse, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, the coming days in Iowa will provide ample opportunity to court the large gathering of caucus-goers who will be the first in the country to weigh in on the 2020 primary.

For the lower tier of candidates, who are still grinding through a crowded field to gain traction, the state fair presents some of the last best chances before the fall to lay the groundwork for a successful showing in the Iowa caucuses next year -- if they make it that far.

A total of 21 candidates will take their turns atop the hay bale-encircled soapbox through Sunday afternoon, for 20-minute opportunities to lay out their campaigns' messages in what is considered the fair's main political event. The format further allows fair-goers to compare platforms as this year's schedule features a number of candidates with contrasting ideologies back to back.

PHOTO: Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential hopeful, addresses the crowd during a campaign event at Sun City Macdonald Ranch in Henderson, Nev., Aug. 3, 2019. Bridget Bennett/The New York Times via Redux
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential hopeful, addresses the crowd during a campaign event at Sun City Macdonald Ranch in Henderson, Nev., Aug. 3, 2019.

On Thursday, a pair of moderates, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Biden, were the first to speak, before more progressive candidates, such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and businessman Andrew Yang lead off the conversations on Friday.

Bullock, the only red-state Democrat in the expansive field, reiterated a familiar refrain while also cautioning Iowans about the increasing possibility of Trump re-election amid the infighting among his Democratic rivals.

"If we can't win back places we lost, if we can't change our strategy, if we can't give people reason to vote for us and not just against him, Donald Trump will win again," he said. "I come from a place not unlike Iowa. I know a whole lot of Trump voters. In 2016, I was the only Democrat in the country to get reelected statewide in a state where Trump won ... The path to victory doesn't just go through the coasts. It goes through Iowa. It goes through Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- all places that we need to win back."

Biden did not mention the issue of guns in his 20-minute stump speech before hundreds of Iowans at the State Fair, but instead focused on restoring the middle class and a message of unity.

"Everybody knows who Donald Trump is, even his supporters know who he is," he said.

"We gotta let him know who we are. We choose unity over division. We choose science over fiction. We choose truth over facts," he said an apparent misstatement.

After his remarks, Biden was asked by ABC News' Senior Congressional Correspondent Mary Bruce if he believes Trump is a white supremacist in a gaggle with reporters in the Des Moines Register tent.

"I believe everything the president says and does encourages white supremacists," he said. "And I'm not sure there's much of a distinction. As a matter of fact, it may be even worse."

While he didn't call Trump a white supremacist, after both O'Rourke and Warren have called him a white supremacist within the last 24 hours, he said, "Whether he is or is not a white supremacist, he encourages them. Everything he does he speaks to them, he's afraid to take them on."

Before the candidates took the stage on Thursday, some of the fairgoers casting their kernels for the 2020 candidates appear to have the issue of gun control on their minds, in the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that took the lives of at least 31 people over the weekend. Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke, a native of El Paso, took himself off the campaign trail to remain in his community for the week instead of attending the state fair.

Not only is the State Fair an opportunity to build name recognition, but it also serves as an informal poll: anyone who looks over 18 can go to a tent hosted by a local television affiliate and put a kernel of corn into a jar in front of a picture of their candidate of choice.

Keith Jones, who cast his kernel for Biden, told ABC News that "guns" was one of the most concerning issues in this election.

"I'd like to see something done," the native of Newton, Iowa, said. "With some of the guns out there that shouldn't be, they're for fighting wars, not for hunting or anything we do in Iowa."

Larry Merrick, a soybean farmer who also cast a kernel for Biden, believes "trade" is the most important issue for the country.

"How would he man some of the trade issues we have now," Merrick said he would like to ask Biden. "We've not talked that much about that as I'd like to have seen so far. But I think that will be an issue as he gets into Iowa because the soybean farmers have really been hit hard."

For Kim D., a former Republican-turned Independent who didn't want to provide her last name, from Clarion, Iowa, told ABC News that "health care, gun control, climate change" are the most important issues in the race.

"There are a few in particular I like," she said. "I like Joe Biden, although I'm changing my vote to Independent because I did vote Republican last year. And so and I totally disagree with the way the Republican Party is going. So I'm going to change my vote to an Independent and I'm thinking the ticket should be Joe Biden and ... Elizabeth Warren."

One Trump support at the state fair, Peri Halma, a teacher who has family members in the farming industry who she said are "affected," still said of Trump, "I think he's doing a great job. I think he's doing real well. I just love his go-get-him attitude."

She added, "I think he tweets too much and says too much sometimes. I also think a lot of it is misconstrued ... Democrats are looking just to cause trouble and put blame on other people."

On Saturday, attendees will hear from Harris, Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and six other candidates on the busiest day at the soapbox, before being treated to a moderate-progressive back-to-back between Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Sanders on Sunday. Sunday also will feature the fair's lone Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.

Away from the soapbox, almost all of the candidates have announced they'll spend time touring the fair -- one of the preeminent retail politicking opportunities of the year, where sleeves are rolled up, corn dogs and turkey legs are sampled and midway games are played. Past years have found candidates like Barack Obama riding bumper cars, Donald Trump offering helicopter rides, John Kasich eating pork chops and Jeb Bush trying his hand at a speed-pitch contest.

PHOTO: Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks at a campaign event at a home Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, in Boulder City, Nev. John Locher/AP, FILE
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks at a campaign event at a home Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, in Boulder City, Nev.

But the State Fair can also bring fallout: in 2011, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said "corporations are people, my friend" amid a testy back-and-forth with hecklers. Democrats seized on that one-liner, aiming to paint the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch businessman in the 2012 race.

The next big spotlight for the candidates will be in mid-September, when the third Democratic primary debates, hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision, will be held in Houston. So far, only eight candidates have qualified for the debate, according to an ABC News analysis of polling and grassroots donors.

The third debate comes at a critical nexus -- winnowing the field down to only viable campaigns that are built to last, while others likely will exhaust their resources in the six-week buildup to the debate.

ABC News' Molly Nagle, Benjamin Siegel and John Verhovek contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.