DES MOINES, Iowa, Feb 3 - Iowa Democrats kick off what could be a bruising nominating process when they gather at caucus sites around the state on Monday to begin choosing a challenger to President Donald Trump.
At more than 1,600 schools, community centers and other public locations, voters will render judgment on a field of 11 Democratic contenders led by front-runners Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, who have battled for the top in recent Iowa polls.
Mostly white, rural Iowa is the first test in the state-by-state battle to pick a Democratic nominee to face Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election. After more than a year of campaigning and more than $800 million in spending, the results in Iowa could begin to provide answers for a party desperately trying to figure out how to beat the Republican president.
Do voters want someone with appeal to centrists, independents and disaffected Republicans, like moderates Biden, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Senator Amy Klobuchar? Or should the party choose a candidate who energizes its liberal base and could bring out new voters, like progressives Sanders and fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren?
The race has been overshadowed in recent weeks, with Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar relegated to part-time campaigning in Iowa as they stayed in Washington for the Senate impeachment trial of Trump. They were to hear closing arguments on Monday, just hours before the caucuses.
Even if one candidate wins by a commanding margin in Iowa, Democrats may still lack clear answers as the race moves on to the other three early-voting states of New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina later in February. And whoever remains in the race by Super Tuesday, when 15 states and territories vote on March 3, will also confront billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is skipping the early states in favor of focusing on delegate-rich states.
Sanders, who finished in a virtual dead heat with Hillary Clinton in Iowa during his first presidential run in 2016, surged recently in many Iowa polls to move just ahead of Biden.
But Warren and Buttigieg remain in striking distance. Many polls show a big bloc of undecided Iowa voters, creating the potential for upsets and late surges.
Iowa state party officials are expecting a record turnout, exceeding the nearly 240,000 voters who attended the caucuses in 2008 amid the excitement over Barack Obama's first candidacy.
The caucuses will begin on Monday at 7 p.m. CST (0100 GMT on Tuesday), and results are expected to begin rolling in within a few hours. Because voters may register as late as Monday, the caucuses could draw a late surge of attendance, particularly among independent voters or Republicans turned off by Trump.
During a final weekend of rallies across the state, all the contenders made their case for why they would be the best choice to beat Trump.
Biden touted his experience after decades in elected office, particularly a track record of achieving progressive goals through bipartisan relationships with lawmakers.
"He is scared to death to run against me, and he has good reason to be concerned," Biden said of Trump during a rally in Muscatine, Iowa.
Sanders has shrugged off a barrage of attacks from rivals who warn the self-identified democratic socialist would doom the party to defeat against Trump, pointing to polls that show him beating the president.
Warren, who has been slipping in polls, portrayed herself as the candidate who could bring the party together. She also made explicit appeals to women voters.
"The world changed when Donald Trump got elected," she told a weekend rally in Cedar Rapids. "Women candidates helped us win back the House in 2018 and won a lot of statehouse races. In a lot of competitive races, women candidates have outperformed men candidates."
Buttigieg promised to usher in a new era of optimism in politics and cast himself as an outsider who has not taken part in Washington's gridlock and partisan brawls.
"The biggest risk that we could take right now would be to try to go up against this president with the same old playbook,” Buttigieg said during a campaign stop in Dubuque.
Klobuchar, who is from the neighboring Midwestern state of Minnesota and perhaps has the most to lose in Iowa, where she has spent most of her campaign time and resources, said she could win conservative areas that Trump captured in 2016.
"I have brought people with me. These rural districts, I have won every single one of them," she told a packed high school gym in a Des Moines suburb.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Joseph Ax Additional reporting by Tim Reid, Simon Lewis, Jarrett Renshaw and Ginger Gibson Additional reporting and writing by John Whitesides Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)