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2020 Democrats compete for attention — and space — at Iowa State Fair

Nearly two dozen presidential candidates attended the Iowa State Fair over the weekend. Former Vice President Joe Biden drew the most attention and continues to lead in the polls, but Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is seeing support surge. Lisa Desjardins reports on how the contenders are striving to stand out -- and to cultivate successful campaign operations -- in the first primary state.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    With six months before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, more than 20 presidential hopefuls descended on the Hawkeye State this weekend.

    As Lisa Desjardins reports, voters were navigating crowds of people and the crowded candidate field.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Welcome to the Iowa state fair, a mix of high political stakes and high blood sugar all on a stick, or on a soapbox.

  • Joe Biden:

    Hello, Iowa!

  • John Delaney:

    You have a very important choice to make.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    It's going to be a test for all of us.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    This is the moment we bring our people together.

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii:

    That's why I'm here asking for your support.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The soapbox, where candidates each get 20 minutes, has never held more presidential weight. Twenty-three contenders, including one GOP challenger to President Trump, will come and go throughout the fair. And with each one comes a walking mosh pit of press attention.

    None more so than former Vice President Joe Biden, who barely had room at his own press conference. Biden has been here before, in failed runs in 1988 and 2008. But he's never had the lead in Iowa until now.

    And it's a large, nearly ten-point lead.

  • Woman:

    Go Joe!

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    His supporters feel they know him. They trust him.

  • Lasha Roberts:

    I like Joe Biden. I enjoyed him when he was with Obama and stuff, and so I think he would definitely be a good candidate for sure.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But opponents question if Biden sparks enough passion.

    How do you do that?

  • Joe Biden:

    Look at the polls. So far, so good. I do it by being me.

    Look, no one's ever including reporters cover me all the time. No one's ever doubted I mean what I say. The problem is sometimes I say all that I mean.

  • Matt Paul:

    It's everything.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Matt Paul has deep roots with the Democratic Party in Iowa. He ran Hillary Clinton's winning Iowa campaign in 2016. Despite Biden's early lead, Paul says the state is still up for grabs.

  • Matt Paul:

    He's popular here, but he has work to do. He's got to be here more. I think he's got to talk about the future.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Some voters are more blunt about Biden.

  • Taylor Wyss:

    If he was the primary candidate, I would still vote for him. But I don't want him to be the candidate. I want someone new and fresh.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Good morning, good morning.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Among those angling as new and fresh is California Senator Kamala Harris, third in Iowa polls. Her staff is energetic and her fair crowd was large, but she dipped in the last poll here, and admits she's still building.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    We have over 65 staff in Iowa. And, you know, there are people in this race who have had national profiles for many years. I'm still introducing myself to people.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    2020 is our big chance.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Quickly surging here is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, now second in the Iowa polls, and captain of what many see as the best organized ground game in the state, with fired-up volunteers like Joie Otting.

  • Joie Otting:

    I think it's important that we just take a new, almost radical — not to call Elizabeth Warren radical — but take a big change in direction.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a problem for Bernie Sanders.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Let me make a major announcement: pretty good.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Vermont senator is still popular in Iowa, but losing the most ground to Warren.

    Over one million people will come to the Iowa state fair. And that is a prime political audience, especially for the many Democrats trying to break into the top tier. The problem: there are just so many candidates. And they're seemingly everywhere — flipping pork, pouring beer, and counting corn kernels. Voters are overwhelmed.

  • Missy Price:

    I'm a registered Democrat. I'm an open-ticket voter, but I have no clue what I'm going to do.

  • Man:

    Buttigieg. Biden.

  • Grant Waller:

    Biden. I like Beto, but we'll see how it goes with that.

  • Kevin Cavallin:

    I agree with what Biden has to say. But I also agree with Warren and what Sanders has to say. So, I'm right now, I'm kind of conflicted.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And thus, candidates are self-separating in groups. The Midwesterners.

    How do you break out?

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    I think you do it the old fashioned way. You just keep reaching out to people and you meet people.

  • Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio:

    When people hear what I have to say, especially coming from Ohio and being in Iowa, it's very similar culturally.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Those focused on personal contact.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:

    I've had a lot of town halls, lots of events at breweries, and it makes a difference because people can get to know me, I can get to know them, make sure I'm lifting up their voices.

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii:

    I'm really focused on is do what we're doing out here today really getting down into communities here in Iowa and New Hampshire and other parts of the country.

  • Julian Castro:

    I believe that as the race gets smaller and smaller, people pay more attention to the candidates.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And the I-can-get-it-done policy folks.

  • Andrew Yang:

    The way we break out is by just keep hammering the message the American people that we need solutions not sound bites, and that it's not their imagination.

  • John Delaney:

    When the field shrinks, they're going to start focusing on ideas, who's got the best ideas, who's the best person to beat Trump. And that's when I think I can break through.

  • John Hickenlooper:

    I've just got to keep finding fresh ways to talk about what we did in Colorado, and most importantly, how we brought people together.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And then there's New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who says he's already rising in less-noticed metrics like endorsements and staff.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    The people that have gone on are people more like me, the people like Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, are people who were considered long shots this far out. But what were they were doing was they were building incredible organizations here in Iowa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There's another issue for Democrats in Iowa, beating President Trump in a state he won by nine points.

  • Dan Putney:

    I like Trump. I like Trump. He's just… He's just a guy. He's not a politician. He's just a guy like — like me.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Here, the move by Democrats to the left for the primary is pushing some away.

  • Patricia Putney:

    They're so liberal. They just don't even want to move on in this world. They want everything to be socialism. They want everything to be calm and nice and everybody loves everybody. But you know sometimes you got to get out and get a little aggressive.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At the Iowa state fair this week, scenes of whirling Americana, rows of fried foods and some 40,000 prize ribbons. But, for candidates — far less reward. Traditionally, just the top three finishers in Iowa are thought to have a real shot at the nomination. The fair marks the end of summer for the state, but it's the beginning of the real heat in the race for president.

    For the "PBS NewsHour", I'm Lisa Desjardins at the Iowa state fair in Des Moines.

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