DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — Democratic presidential candidates this campaign season have barnstormed the Hawkeye State, met with folks at Main Street cafes and in living rooms, marched in Fourth of July parades, and made soap-box speeches at the Iowa State Fair.
On Friday night, 13 of them had one of their best opportunities so far to put a face on their campaign before a sellout crowd estimated at more than 13,000 at the Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines. This cattle call was the opposite of Iowa’s famous retail politics, and the candidates were looking to break out of the still-large pack with just three months before Iowans go to first-in-the-nation caucuses.
They might be hoping to do what Barack Obama did in 2007 at the event when he energized the audience and his campaign followed a trajectory to victory. But with half as many speakers that year who had 20 minutes each, Friday’s 13 candidates had just 10 minutes to make their pitch.
The Democratic field shrank slightly Friday:
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke had been scheduled to speak at Friday’s event, but before it got underway word spread among his stunned volunteers that he had ended his campaign.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez praised O’Rourke in comments to reporters Friday in Des Moines.
“I want to thank Congressman O’Rourke,” Perez said. “He always brought a level of passion, judgment and sound intellect to everything he did.”
Still, Perez said the Democrats have a “deep bench.”
“It is a remarkably diverse field,” Perez said. “I am proud of that as a Dominican-American.”
Iowa Democrats who have been paying attention during this caucus season have heard many of the candidates’ lines repeated Friday.
Former Vice President Joe Biden repeated one of his Democrat crowd-pleasers:
“The very character of America is on the ballot next November,” he said. “We are in a battle for the soul of America. The middle class is under siege. The middle class is the soul of America. The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class.”
But the candidates used favorite lines in hopes of distinguishing themselves from the others.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren portrayed the election as a fight for Americans against the rich and powerful.
She issued a call for supporting her candidacy because she is prepared to take on that fight: “A person who comes on this stage and does not understand that we are in a fight is not going to win that fight” and win this election. “Hope and courage win elections,” she said.
Warren did not talk about how she would pay for her “Medicare for all” plan, which she announced earlier in the day. But Biden alluded to it, saying that under his health care plan, 160 million Americans can keep their existing health insurance policies if they want.
“We need to build on the Affordable Care Act, not abandon it, and create a public option,” Biden said. “We can do that without taxing the middle class.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg likewise distinguished himself from Warren with a reference to his “Medicare for all who want it” plan.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made an unqualified call for Medicare for all: “In my opinion, health care is a human right, not a privilege,” he said.