DES MOINES, Iowa -- During the politically important Iowa State Fair, presidential hopefuls walked a high wire act of emotion – on and off their iconic Soapbox stage – as the nation reels from back-to-back mass shootings and debate was sparked anew about what leaders should do.
The tragedies loomed large and heavy over the fairgrounds and even as the candidates sought to balance that deep endemic pain and the frivolity of fried Oreos.
Here are the top seven standout moments from 2020 candidates at the Iowa State Fair and nearby events.
1. Gun reform takes center stage
In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton massacres, presidential candidates emphasized the urgent need to combat gun violence in America. Their push for more stringent gun reform was met with round applause – a striking reception in a Midwest swing spot like Iowa, so proud of their gun culture.
California Sen. Kamala Harris spoke passionately about how kids “should not have to go through drills and learn how to hide under desks and cower in corners… in the event there is a mass shooting.” She joined several of her fellow 2020ers in calling for Walmart to stop selling firearms.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rolled out her own gun reform plan this week – and impressed upon her crowds the urgency of this issue getting solved.
It was a core call to action the fair fun orbited loosely; several moments of silence were held throughout this week’s Iowa events – and on Saturday, 16 of the Democratic candidates came to the day-long forum on gun control that had been quickly assembled in the wake of El Paso and Dayton - former Rep. Beto O'Rourke missing the Iowa barnstorm altogether to stay home with his community.
The forum grew quite emotional – Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang cried onstage after hearing from a woman whose four-year-old daughter had been killed by a stray bullet.
“I have a 6 and 3-year-old boy,” he said. “I was imagining it was one of them that got shot – and the other saw it – I’m so sorry.”
2. Candidates face tough questions on the stump and on the sidewalk
The candidates faced questions from the press and the public about their policies for the future.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar got her fair share – on gun reform especially. Confronted by one person in the gaggle of reporters around her on assault weapons, she finally stopped in the street:
“If you want to have a debate, we will have a debate,” Klobuchar challenged.
Candidates also had to answer for their policies – and it illustrated the moderate/progressive line the party now faces. Moderate candidates appeared less eager to take hard line stances related to racial tensions. former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and Hawaii's Rep. Tulsi Gabbard both stopped short of calling President Trump a white supremacist, where some of their fellows like former Rep. O’Rourke and Senator Warren have gone full stop. There was a clear hunger among the voters for strong, decisive action - and the words to match.
"He's a white supremacist!" someone shouted about President Trump.
"Well, that's what I'm basically saying." Delaney tried to reason.
"So say it! Stop with the semantics!" some in the crowd responded.
"I'm not saying semantics. I'm being very blunt about it. I said it," Delaney said.
"No you didn't. Say it he's a white supremacist!" someone pushed.
Delaney saying - "He supports white supremacy --"
But the crowd interrupted - "Is he a white supremacist?!"
Delaney responding, " -So what else can you conclude?"
3. Biden's gaffe during an Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition PAC event
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign said Friday he "misspoke" after he came under fire for a gaffe he made during an Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition PAC event Wednesday night, separate and away from the state fair, saying “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
“We have this notion that somehow if you're poor, you cannot do it, poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids. Wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids. I really mean it. But think how we think about it. We think now we're going to dumb it down. They can do anything anybody else can do give it a shot,” Biden said at the coalition event to applause.
President Trump’s re-election campaign quickly seized on the comments Thursday night, blasting them out on the “Trump War Room” Twitter account in a post that was re-tweeted more than 7,000 times as of Friday afternoon.
Biden’s Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield issued a statement following the criticism, saying Biden simply misspoke and noted the vice president "immediately corrected himself."
4. The massive crowds
It was elbow to elbow as 2020 candidates came face to face with those Iowa voters – to the point where press and public alike could barely move as both groups chased the candidates. If the close quarters for so many high profile politicians was a concern before - it increased tenfold after the recent mass shootings. The fair stepped up security in their wake - adding more officers and more security cameras on the grounds.
Wherever they went - the candidates towed a massive slipstream of people and reporters craning their necks and cameras to get a better view. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Klobuchar and Harris all had enormous crowds following them around.
Warren drew such a group wherever she went that at one point in the sea of people jostling around her – a nearby baby carriage got knocked over in the chaos. Several reporters stopped their pursuit of Warren to help right the stroller.
There were moments of light, levity, and delicious fried things lifting spirits high, in spite of the somewhat sober underbelly.
Wafting smells from every concession stand flood the air at the State Fair – frying bread dough, briny pickles on a stick, cheese curds, sizzling pork grease– and the 2020 candidates were there for all of it.
Harris arrived at the main gate Saturday – and true to prosecutor form, the former California attorney general didn’t mince words.
“Where’s the butter cow?” Harris asked right away. “I want to see that cow.”
She and several other 2020ers donned an apron and flipped pork chops and burgers themselves.
“I’m so excited… this is how I’m going to flip Republicans!” she joked.
Andrew Yang took his stump off the stage with one of the fair’s must-have smoked turkey legs, breaking down his plan to give every American $1000 per month with how many turkey legs that extra cash could buy
Right after his soapbox speech, Sanders made sure to visit the butter cow as well – chomping down a corn dog - before heading out.
Governor Jay Inslee of Washington told reporters he wanted to try every single food at the fair. Like his climate proposal – a sweeping promise – and an undertaking many might consider near-impossible. He picked chocolate ice cream to start.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey – a devout vegan – found his way to savor as well, with fried PB&J sandwiches.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro revealed Saturday that he hadn’t eaten any food at the fair the day before – and blamed it on reporters.
“Y’all got in my way!” he exclaimed.
It’s also hard not to get in each other’s way at the State Fair – though the grounds span more than 400 acres, candidates kept bumping into each other – even playing a few pranks.
Visiting the Iowa Democrats’ booth, Klobuchar was mid-autograph when she heard a voice in her left ear: “Senator, would you sign mine?”
She turned – to see New York's Senator Kirsten Gillibrand – and they both burst into peels of laughter.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and his five-year-old son Brady were enjoying the day’s fun when they ran into Kamala Harris. Excited, Harris picked Brady up.
“I love seeing you!” she said to Ryan’s son, cuddling him.
“Say good luck!” Ryan said smiling, as they handed Brady off. “But… not too much luck!”
6. Moms and dads on the trail
Fairs like Iowa’s famed one are fun for the whole family – and that goes for presidential candidates, too: this week, we got to see a lot of the 2020ers with their nearest and dearest in tow.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan walked around the fair carrying his son Brady on his shoulders. Buying him a root beer float – his son’s first – Brady exclaimed – “This is the best thing I’ve ever had!”
Gillibrand was in full mom mode: waiting in line for a cherry lemonade, she made sure to rub sunscreen all over her 11-year-old Henry’s fair freckled face, arms and legs.
Henry was in it for all the special treats he would have at the fair – and asked what tricks he’s got to sweet-talk his parents into letting him get away with more junk food- he was sly.
“Top secret!” he said.
7. Lend me your “ears”
Iowa voters may still be unsure who they’ll throw their support behind – but the candidates themselves sure aren’t. Each of them made sure to stop by the Corn Kernel Poll – the famous unscientific tradition at the state fair, where people voice their 2020 preference by dropping a kernel of corn in a glass jar labeled with each candidate’s photo.
Any guesses who they all voted for? (Spoiler: themselves.)
But there was one nail-biting moment: when Gillibrand’s 11-year-old son Henry nearly cast his (really his mom’s – you have to be 18, like real voting – but the senator ceded hers to her boy) kernel for Warren instead.
“Hmm… who should I pick…?” Henry teased. “I hear she’s good…” his hand drifted towards Warren’s jar.
Gillibrand, laughing, took her son’s hand – and guided it towards her own jar.
“At least I have one vote!” Gillibrand joked.
And while Iowans love seeing all the candidates, there to curry favor with the key state at the polls, most of them are still holding out their vote and are not shy about saying so.
Voters at the fair know they’ve got an important role to play – and with so many in the race to choose from – a lot of options to sort through. Asked by ABC News who they support – or at least piques their interest – many Hawkeyes at the fair couldn’t help but laugh about how many candidates there are to consider.
Moreover they added: there’s still plenty of time left for consideration before caucus time, and as they’re being wooed – there’s no rush.
ABC News' MaryAlice Parks and Briana Stewart contributed to this report.