The likely next president of the United States appeared on stage in Iowa on Saturday night as huge crowds of enthusiastic supporters were joined by rock stars, televangelists and duck hunters in a frenzy of political campaigning.
Working out which of several simultaneous rallies actually contained the future occupant of the White House was less easy, however, as voters in the state prepare to launch the nationwide process of picking Republican and Democratic nominees on Monday amid unusually tight primary races in both parties.
Just before the last-minute crescendo of campaigning began, a highly regarded opinion poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper saw Donald Trump retaking the top spot in the Republican race from Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton clinging to a narrower lead over Bernie Sanders among Democrats.
But the energy was with Sanders and Cruz on Saturday night at lively rallies that suggested neither challenger was out of their respective race yet.
Sanders drew the biggest crowds as an estimated 5 000 supporters descended on the University of Iowa in Iowa City to hear the Vermont senator supported by performances from bands including Vampire Weekend and Foster the People.
“The pundits say young people don’t vote,” he told the many students in the audience. “How would you like to make the pundits look dumb on election night?”
Vampire Weekend, who admitted that one of their earlier songs had an inappropriately “nihilistic” theme, were joined on stage at the end of the night by the senator and his wife Jane Sanders for a rousing finale of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land.
The 1940 folk classic has long been a favourite of Sanders’ and its lyrics chimed poignantly with his cry to seize back American democracy from the billionaire class: “from California to the New York island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me”.
Earlier, Sanders had sought to manage expectations in an interview with the Guardian, stressing how far his insurgent campaign had come since he first began challenging Clinton from the left.
“What is interesting about Iowa is there are 44 delegates at stake and the truth is I think at the end of the day whether I win or I lose, the number of delegates we each get is going to be like this,” he said, holding forefinger and thumb together to indicate how close this more meaningful measure of success could be even if he loses overall.
“There is a symbolic thing about winning here, which I admit … I want to win here in Iowa and we’ve got a shot,” added Sanders in remarks shortly before the Des Moines Register poll.
“But we are in this race to run to the convention. People have underestimated this campaign from day one.”
Half an hour up the road Hillary Clinton was joined by husband Bill and daughter Chelsea at a smaller, though similarly upbeat, event at a high school in Cedar Rapids.
Her warm-up band however was made up of four young men, who told reporters that while they were undecided as caucus-goers, they were inclined to favor Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination.
Two days before the state will hold the first nominating contest of 2016, this embodied in many ways Clinton’s predicament: a struggle to resonate, particularly with young voters who have been drawn to Sanders in droves.
Taking the stage with her husband, Bill, and daughter, Chelsea, Clinton sought to once again drive home the idea that Sanders was merely a shiny object: attractive and principled, but without a realistic plan to achieve the ambitious goals he has pledged to a larger-than-expected grassroots movement. “I am a progressive that actually likes to make progress. That is what I believe in,” Clinton said before a raucous crowd of 1 100 people. “What we need is a plan and a commitment.”
She was interrupted by a woman who shouted: “And you!”
Bill Clinton made precisely the same point. What the White House needed, he said in warming up the crowd, was a seasoned hand.
With his signature charisma the former president reflected on his wife’s history of advocacy – for children, for women, and for middle and working class Americans.“Every place she’s ever been she’s made better,” he said. “She always makes something good happen.”
Roles were also reversed in the Republican race where Donald Trump broke with his standard formula of a pumped-up rally for something that looked more like a Saturday night talk show. The billionaire sat on a stage for a softball interview with the Christian evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.
Rows of the Adler Theater were packed with popcorn-eating spectators, many of whom appeared to have crossed the nearby border with Illinois to see the billionaire former star of The Apprentice.
“This is a movement,” he said in Davenport, on the eastern edge of the state. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
The format may have been different, but during the 35-minute show the audience was given a glimpse of the rambling, unscripted monologues that have defined his presidential campaign, one that always seizes on his remarkable poll numbers.
He briefly mentioned the Des Moines Register’s result that he said had made him “very happy”. Trump said he was most heartened by the underlying data in the newspaper’s poll that showed an increase in support from evangelicals. He attributed that to Falwell, president of a deeply Christian college in Virginia and son of one America’s most famous conservative preachers.
The billionaire insisted Falwell was “a man of faith”. “Maybe I’m a little bit not as good as he is in that way,” Trump said. “But I’m good.”
There was a brief interruption, shortly after the Q&A was over and Trump was shaking hands with supporters, from a small crowd of students who broke out in a chant of “Feel The Bern”. It was largely drowned out by a rendition over the loudspeakers of opera singer Pavarotti’s famous rendition of Nessun Dorma.
But in Sioux City, Ted Cruz addressed a packed room of supporters in a community college auditorium with more of the celebrity buzz that surrounds Sanders.
A near-dozen introductory speakers preceded the Texas senator’s appearance. These included two special guests, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson and conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. Robertson urged attendees to blow duck calls that the campaign had handed out in order to entice Donald Trump, whom he called “Donald Duck” to come debate Cruz.
He was followed by Beck who gave a half-hour stemwinder that included the media personality brandishing George Washington’s personal copy of Don Quixote.
Cruz finally took the stage an hour and half after the scheduled start of the event and soon started to attack Trump for not participating in Thursday’s Republican debate. He noted Trump was “a gentle soul” who was afraid Megyn Kelly might “ask him a hard question – his hair might stand on end”.
Earlier in the week the Texas senator had challenged Trump to show up at Saturday’s event for a “mano a mano” debate. Needless to say Trump did not appear. But that mild ribbing was the full extent to which Cruz went after his rivals at the event. Instead Cruz portrayed himself as the true heir to Ronald Reagan and the only committed conservative in the race. However he struck a far more confrontational tone at a press conference prior to the event.
Speaking to reporters, Cruz went after his two main opponents in brutally direct terms on policy. “A vote for Marco Rubio is a vote for amnesty and a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Obamacare.”
All four main candidates are expected to continue campaigning through Sunday before slowly winding up ahead of the caucuses at 7pm on Monday. – © Guardian News and Media 2016