FORT DODGE, Iowa — A Democratic presidential race that started as a struggle between the activist left and the moderates has become something far less ideological and more emotional as the first nominating contest has come into view: Should they fight or unite?
A year into the campaign, Elizabeth Warren’s claim that “I’m fighting back” and the “revolution” mantra of Bernie Sanders’ campaign have only grown louder for the confrontational approach to beating President Donald Trump and to the challenges that await the next president.
On the other side of the divide, in calls for consensus on what would likely be a traumatic post-Trump transition, Joe Biden says the next president must foremost “be a healer,” while Pete Buttigieg talks increasingly of an America “worn out from fighting.”
Both are powerful competing political impulses that illustrate the choice before Democratic voters in Iowa.
There is no clear trend to show whether fight or unite is winning.
“I know how bad Trump is. I want to know what we can do together,” said Des Moines County Democratic Party Chairman Tom Courtney, who has not endorsed a candidate.
On the other side of the debate, Lonnie Tyler, a meat cutter from Waterloo, walked away from a rally for Sanders headlined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with an air of defiance. “I think they’re going to have to bend to his will if he becomes the nominee,” he said.
Audiences across Iowa have been wrestling with the themes of consensus versus confrontation, neither of which are mutually exclusive but which have come to define the top candidates as they approach the stretch run to Monday’s caucuses, which set the tone for the nominating contests to come.
Warren has owned the language of a more combative argument throughout the campaign and leaned into it hard.
“The danger is real,” the Massachusetts senator told an audience in Muscatine in eastern Iowa, referring to economic and social threats to the poor, women, minorities and children.
“We have to decide whether to give into the fear or whether to fight back,” Warren said. “Me, I’m fighting back. That’s why I’m in this. I’m fighting back. I’m fighting back because we are at our best as a nation when we fight back. When we see big problems and we take them on and we fight back.”
Buttigieg has become Warren’s rhetorical opposite, especially as he rose sharply in the Iowa polls last fall.
Having attacked the idea that “fighting is the point” at a gathering of thousands of Iowa Democrats in November, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, typically only mentions Trump by name once in his standard speech, when he asks his audience to imagine the day after Trump leaves office.
When the on-cue burst of cheers subsides, he speaks of an America in the ashes of an impeachment, a divisive election and, as he did in Fort Dodge on Saturday, “in need of being brought together, in need of healing and common purpose.”
Biden, a veteran of decades of congressional battles who served as Barack Obama’s right-hand man, strikes a balanced tone.
In Ames last week, he said, “One of the things a president has to do is you have to be a fighter and a competitor, but a president also needs to be a healer. You have to heal the country.” He repeated that theme on Sunday in Marshalltown, saying, “We can’t go on with this endless political war.”
Even as Sanders, who labeled Trump “a racist, a sexist, a homophobe and a religious bigot” in his opening remarks to a college audience in Ames on Saturday, unity has emerged as a theme as caucus night has approached.
“The way you defeat Trump is by putting together a strong, grassroots, multigenerational, multiracial, working-class movement,” he told his audience at Iowa State University.
A Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll taken this month showed 69% of Iowans who expected to attend the caucuses said a “candidate’s ability to unite the country” was “extremely important,” the highest rating among several candidate characteristics. The second-highest “extremely important” ranking — at 58% — went to “which candidate you think has the superior chance of winning next November.” The general sentiment is also reflected in some internal campaign polls.
Still, Sanders, with a go-it-alone reputation in the Senate, enters the final week narrowly ahead in a four-candidate pack at the front of the field in Iowa.
Sanders has been a particularly sharp critic of Biden’s, reprising recently the former Delaware senator’s support for the 2002 congressional authorization of military force in Iraq and regularly attacking Biden’s high-dollar private fundraisers.
And yet in gatherings of hundreds of audiences, made up primarily of Democrats but also independents and frustrated Republicans, Buttigieg has elicited the strongest reactions when he projects faith in cooperation.
“Not that any two people would agree on everything,” Buttigieg said in Republican-heavy Pella last week. “But we can agree on where we need to head in this country. We can agree on the problems that need to be solved. We can agree to come together to solve them.”
The line brought a long, sustained round of applause.