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The Memo: Four Democrats race for Iowa prize

The battle for the Democratic nomination is the most unpredictable in at least two decades, with just three weeks left before the Iowa caucuses.

There has been precious little winnowing of the field, at least since Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) dropped out in early December.

Four candidates have a plausible shot at winning the Iowa caucuses and the nomination itself: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D).

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Further roiling the field are two billionaires, environmentalist Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose extensive spending on television advertising has enabled them to make inroads. 

Bloomberg has risen to around 6 percent support in the RealClearPolitics national polling average, while the political world was startled by two Fox News polls released Thursday that showed Steyer at 15 percent support in South Carolina and 12 percent in Nevada.

That’s not the only complicating factor.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled that she will send articles of impeachment to the Senate next week, a move that will require the upper chamber to start its trial of President Trump almost immediately. 

That means senators such as Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) will have to divide their time between Washington and Iowa even as the final sprint to the caucuses is underway.

The nomination battle this year has a fluidity that was absent in 2016, which was effectively a two-horse race between Sanders and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, and in 2008, when only three candidates — then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Clinton — were in serious contention.

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The race is also being roiled by the aftershocks from President Trump’s decision to order the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The controversy that followed has placed foreign policy at the center of a campaign that had previously been fought on domestic issues and the overarching question of which Democrat is best placed to defeat Trump in November.

In particular, the Iran crisis placed a new spotlight on Biden, whose supporters highlight his experience in foreign affairs but whose detractors note his 2002 vote, while a senator, to give then-President George W. Bush authority to go to war in Iraq.

Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, has turned its fire increasingly on Sanders, casting him as weak on national security. Team Trump’s moves suggest it is becoming worried by the threat posed by the Vermont senator, however.

Sanders came out on top of the keenly awaited Des Moines Register poll in Iowa, which was released Friday evening. The poll — the gold standard in the Hawkeye State — gave Sanders 20 percent support, narrowly ahead of Warren with 17 percent, Buttigieg with 16 percent and Biden with 15 percent.

The poll gave new optimism for Warren’s supporters after a period in which she had seemed to lose altitude. Conversely, it is a sign of alarm for Buttigieg, whose support in the state has dropped 9 points since a November survey by the same pollster.

The scrutiny Buttigieg has faced after an earlier surge may be taking its toll. A poor result in Iowa could also spell real trouble for the former South Bend mayor, who has signally failed to attract black support and is expected to struggle once the primary process moves to more ethnically diverse states such as fourth-to-vote South Carolina.

The idiosyncrasies of the Iowa caucuses, where supporters must gather at specific venues and submit to a more complicated process than simply casting a ballot, could help candidates who have an especially committed base. That could benefit Sanders.

“I think Bernie Sanders has advantages because he has done it before and his supporters are nothing if not devoted,” said Democratic strategist Tara Dowdell, who is not affiliated with any candidate. Dowdell noted that Warren has a similarly “passionate” following and that her organization in Iowa is said to be particularly strong.

Biden’s camp has been downplaying his chances of winning in Iowa, stressing his strength nationwide as well as with black voters who will be central to later primaries. Still, they haven’t given up on Iowa.

Dick Harpootlian, a member of the finance committee of Biden’s campaign and a state senator in South Carolina, told The Hill he would be traveling with friends to Iowa in the coming days to go door to door on behalf of the former vice president.

“If he were to win Iowa, that would dampen the enthusiasm for the rest of the field,” Harpootlian said.

But he also insisted that Biden is the strongest candidate to defeat Trump, win or lose in Iowa.

“It’s the only argument that anybody ought to be having right now: who can beat Donald Trump,” Harpootlian said. “Our worst person is better than him but they can’t win the swing states. I hear this idea that we have to ‘lead on issues’ or ‘show who we are.’ I’ll tell you who we are: We’re the folks who need to beat Donald Trump.”

The closeness of the race in Iowa makes the final televised debate before the caucuses particularly crucial. The debate will take place on Tuesday evening at Drake University in Des Moines.

The Iowa result can reset the race for the nomination at a moment’s notice, as it did when Obama won in 2008 and Clinton was relegated to third place behind Edwards, a shock from which her campaign never fully recovered.

That’s one reason why the candidates want to leave no stone unturned between now and the Feb. 3 caucuses.

“I still think Iowa and New Hampshire are going to set the table for the rest of the race,” said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity. “After that, do all four of these people still have a chance of winning the race? And if not, which one is ascendant?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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