DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – In what may have been the largest political gathering this election season in Iowa, more than 12,000 Democrats descended on a sprawling urban park in Des Moines Saturday for an event that was at once a raucous political rally, candidate forum and red-meat food fest on a rainy day.
The Polk County Steak fry drew 17 Democratic presidential hopefuls aiming to get their message through the noise created by a large field of candidates who have set up shop in Iowa in advance of February’s first-in-the nation caucuses.
Saturday’s steak fry was an opportunity for Iowa Democrats who may not have not heard the stump speeches or met a candidate in person in their neighbors’ living room, to hear campaign pitches in one place.
For the most part, they heard stump speeches packaged into 10-minute bites. Common themes: President Donald Trump needs to be ousted the ballot box, if not impeached; the richest 1 percent of Americans need to pay their fair share of taxes; all Americans need health care that does not bankrupt them when they get sick; and the nation needs immigration reform, legislation to confront climate change, and “common-sense gun-control.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders hit on most all of those in his call for a revolution to change the course of American politics.
How will he do that?
“By telling the truth,” Sanders said. “Because of the sweat and toil of families – including undocumented immigrants – America became the wealthiest nation in the world,” but he said there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top 1 percent, creating “more wealth inequality at any time since the 1920s.”
Sanders’ vision: “We will bring all of our people together around a progressive agenda that works for all of us, not just for the wealthiest 1 percent.” On that agenda: An infrastructure program that pays workers a living wage, tuition-free public colleges and universities, and universal health care with no premiums, no co-pays, no deductibles, no out-of-pocket expenses.
Former vice president Joe Biden also hit on economic inequality: “Wall Street did not build America,” Biden said. “You built America, and unions built the middle class.”
Biden repeated his cure for health care, which stops short of the universal health care offered by other Democrats: “Obamacare did great things, but we need to do so much more. We need to build on it, finish the job.”
That includes allowing Americans to buy into a public option, including Medicare and Medicaid, and if they like their existing company plan or union plan, they can keep it.
Elizabeth Warren made the strongest case for impeaching Donald Trump.
Referring to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, she said: “I read all 448 pages, and when I got to the end, I called for the impeachment of Donald Trump.”
She said the case for impeachment is stronger than ever in light of recent reports about the president’s phone call to the president of the Ukraine.
Candidates also talked about how their biographies prepared them for the presidency.
Kamala Harris tied her career as a prosecutor to defeating Donald Trump: “We need to prosecute the case against Donald Trump,” she said. “And I think we’re looking at a pretty long rap sheet.” Then, after a pause, Harris repeated her oft-heard punchline: “Dude’s gotta go.”
The menu for Saturday’s steak fry – a revival of the events former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin regularly hosted near his birthplace in Warren County – included not just steak but chicken, vegetarian and vegan options, along with standard sides of baked beans and potato salad. For those looking for other options, there were beer tents and food trucks.
The event was a cacophony of amplified music and cheering campaign workers in their candidate’s brightly colored T-shirts handing out stickers and brochures, as smoke from a row of barbeque grills drifted across the field.
Prior to the speeches, candidates marched to the site parade style, with marching bands and placards waving, and stopped at the grills to take their turn flipping steaks.
Addison Jeske, 22, of Olympia, Wash., who has been in Iowa since June volunteering for the Pete Buttigieg campaign, said he was motivated to come to Iowa to work for “Mayor Pete” because “I love that he talks about his faith so openly. He is a super-progressive candidate, his message, its unifying appeal, is amazing.”
Richard Trippler, 43, who came up from Columbia, Mo. to volunteer for the Elizabeth Warren, said Saturday’s event was largely aimed at the party faithful who have already sorted themselves into candidates’ camps.
“There is a substantial amount of preaching to the choir,” he said, and Warren’s strategy was to focus on organizing the grass-roots campaign and reaching out to undecideds.
Laura Votruba, 26, another Missourian who has been coming to Iowa on weekends to canvass for Warren, said: “It is refreshing to have someone who makes sense,” she said. “She is brilliant.”
Marcia Barlage, 67, of Des Moines, wearing a black baseball cap with “I miss Barack” embossed on the front, said she has a top tier of candidates she likes – including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris – but she said, “When it comes down to it, I would vote for any one of ‘em.”