How the impeachment trial has changed the Iowa plan for Warren, Sanders and Klobuchar

The days before the caucuses are vastly different from what anyone imagined.

January 30, 2020, 4:36 AM

Five days before the Iowa caucuses, U.S. presidential candidates traditionally spend their every waking hour in one place, and one place only: Iowa.

But not this year.

This year, instead of spending three hours face-to-face with Midwestern voters, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar spent three hours traveling there on a plane from the nation’s capital. Instead of running onto the stage in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to her theme song -- Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” -- Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was running up the marble stairs to the Senate floor.

And instead of riding in the front seat of a campaign Chevrolet SUV down I-80 East, the major highway from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was waiting for a staffer driving a Prius to pick him up from the steps of the Capitol.

The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump has thrown a wrench into the year-long preparations made by Democratic senators’ 2020 campaigns ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses in Iowa -- the first contest in the nation that holds the power to propel lesser known candidates to victory or solidify front-runners through the general election.

And while they might not say so outright -- always bookending every comment about impeachment with a pledge to uphold their constitutional duty as senators -- the 2020 presidential candidates who’ve been benched by the impeachment trial will certainly acknowledge one thing: This is not what they pictured Iowa crunch time to look like all those months ago when they announced their bid.

"I never would have imagined that we would be here in the middle of an impeachment trial -- for which the Republicans would take the position that there would be no witnesses and no documents. It's the whole combination that makes this feel otherworldly," Warren told reporters waiting for her to arrive at the Capitol on Wednesday morning.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) leaves the U.S. Capitol after the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump was adjourned for the day on January 29, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

"I expected to be in Iowa doing town halls," she said, laughing. "But we are where we are. I took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution -- and to get upstairs so I'm not late.”

The schedule hinges each day on the decisions of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose position as leader of the majority party of the Senate gives him control over each day’s proceedings -- so much so that even the Democrats running for president don’t know how long each day might last.

As Warren arrived Wednesday morning, for example, reporters still asked her directly for guidance on whether the senator could possibly make her scheduled campaign stops in Iowa the following morning.

"Ask Mitch McConnell," Warren said, climbing the stairs to the Senate floor. "If the trial's going on, I'm going to be here."

Klobuchar faced the same uncertainty Tuesday, when her campaign announced a trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, only seven hours before she showed up there. Her staff in Iowa told ABC News that they woke up Tuesday morning not expecting Klobuchar in the state. They had four hours to put an event together.

The campaign made the call and blasted out press releases just minutes after McConnell took the podium Tuesday and gave senators an inkling of guidance on the day ahead.

“I am here today, what may be my last visit to Council Bluffs before the caucuses, because we simply don't know if we're going to be able to do the big plan all around the state that we have wanted to do,” Klobuchar said once she arrived in Council Bluffs Tuesday night, fresh off the plane, standing before a crowd of roughly 160 people.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks at a campaign stop at Jethro's BBQ Steak n' Chop, Jan. 26, 2020, in Ames, Iowa.
Andrew Harnik/AP

A few days ago, Klobuchar had imagined she’d hit Council Bluffs in the midst of a whole day of campaigning, complete with stops in three other Iowa towns, according to the campaign’s schedule released last week.

Instead, by Tuesday she had held three town halls by telephone and done interviews with local television stations in all four early states, pulling out all the stops in an attempt to capitalize on a blast of momentum from a polling boost after the January debate, a New York Times dual-endorsement for her and Warren, and a number of other editorial board endorsements in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Warren, too, had invited Iowans to join her on a conference-call-turned-town-hall, which she hosted from her condo in D.C. before heading off to an interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell to run through the day’s argument from Trump’s legal team.

“It’s fun to be on a tele town hall,” Warren told the voters who’d punched in their codes to listen to Warren and Bobby Bauch, an energetic Iowa organizer for the campaign who, on that Tuesday, was tasked with injecting hype into a thousand-person conference call.

“I wish we were doing an in-person town tall, but this is the best we can do. I’m here, in Washington, because of the impeachment. This is really serious,” Warren said when she first came on the phone.

The senators’ 2020 campaigns, which had each originally thrown around bold ideas about chartering the candidates back-and-forth to Iowa multiple days a week, have had to get creative with their last-ditch attempts to close the deal with undecided Iowans.

The trial hasn’t ended before 8 p.m. most days, sometimes lasting well past most Iowans’ bedtimes and dashing all hopes of a spontaneous visit from the Democratic candidates.

Sanders’ campaign saw those realities play out last Wednesday night, when they canceled a rally in Cedar Falls, Iowa, because the impeachment trial stretched too late into the evening.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., departs at the end of the day in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

The Vermont senator ultimately settled for just under 32 hours in the Hawkeye State, dashing there Saturday afternoon and heading back Sunday evening, fitting in seven stops and covering more than 330 miles on the ground.

For six days now, the senators have arrived on the Hill around 1 p.m. each day, brushing through security with their senate staff at their side, not dawning the sneakers or sweaters that make up their casual campaign attire and opting instead for blazers adorned with gold U.S. Senate lapel pins.

They spend anywhere from seven to ten hours in the Senate chamber, sometimes popping out during breaks to get in quick hits on newscasts before rushing back to their desk.

They’re relegated to drinking only water or milk on the Senate floor, per decades-old rules that dictate even their eating routines. Warren, who drinks coconut water religiously to stay hydrated on the trail, has been seen drinking a thick, yogurt-like drink for extra protein.

All the while, Democratic opponents like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have criss-crossed the Hawkeye state for up to 16 hours a day, not beholden to the time constraints of a historic but time-consuming impeachment trial in Washington.

The potential disadvantage to her facetime with Iowan voters was not lost on Klobuchar, she told supporters Tuesday night.

“I sit there knowing that I’m off the campaign trail while some of my opponents are running around everywhere,” Klobuchar said. “I think to myself, ‘you know -- this is my job.’”

ABC News' Adam Kelsey, Lissette Rodriguez and Samantha Sergi contributed to this report.

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