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Democratic Candidates Make Their Last Pitches In Iowa Before Caucuses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is finally here - the first day of voting in the 2020 presidential election. Candidates are in Iowa making their last-minute pitches to Iowans who caucus today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Hello, Indianola.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #1: Thank you so much.

JOE BIDEN: It's good to see you guys again.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #2: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #3: Thank you, Nevada.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #4: Hey, you guys. Wow.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Unbelievable - wow.

KELLY: Covering it all, NPR political reporters Asma Khalid and Scott Detrow - they are in Des Moines for the caucuses.

So what are these last-minute pitches? What are the closing arguments you're hearing from candidates?

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Well, for Joe Biden - let's start there. He has largely been making his closing argument about his record, his resume and his experience, you know, sort of making the argument that he is the most electable, the most likely Democrat to defeat Donald Trump in a general election.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: And Bernie Sanders is pivoting off of that and saying the electability is not being reliable and somebody people know and trust but being somebody who excites a party's base, brings younger voters, newer voters out. Sanders is making that pitch for himself and talking about, you know, the issues he's been talking about for years - "Medicare for All," protecting Social Security - things like that.

Pete Buttigieg, interestingly to me, was the only Democrat out here really making hard contrasts with other candidates over the past few days, arguing that Joe Biden is just kind of the status quo; Bernie Sanders is talking about revolution. Pete Buttigieg is saying, I am talking about something in between these two extreme options, and I'm also a younger, fresher face. And historically, that's gone well for the Democratic Party.

KHALID: And the other leading candidate in this race has been Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator.

KELLY: Right.

KHALID: And, you know, interestingly, I would say her argument lately has sounded different than it did at the beginning of the campaign. You hear her surrogates now making the argument that she is the consensus candidate - you know, that the party needs unity, and she is the most likely candidate who could bring the Joe Biden and the Bernie Sanders wings of this party together. You know, she's also talking about her record of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and just being somebody who, she would make the argument, can get stuff done.

KELLY: Yeah. And I'm imagining that it's been a day of transport as well. I know senators have been back in Washington for the impeachment trial. They're making their way back to Iowa, so there's a lot of movement back-and-forth. What is the headline of what you were hearing from voters - whether these closing arguments, which have some real differences as you paint them - whether they are resonating? Scott, you first.

DETROW: Yeah, I think one key theme is that there's just a lot of excitement. There has been deep engagement with these candidates since Day 1 of this campaign, which was more than a year ago, to the point where the Sanders campaign especially is talking about the likelihood of Iowa Democrats breaking their all-time caucusing record, which was set in 2008. About 240,000 people caucused in 2008, and the Sanders campaign is saying if it gets to 250,000, we feel like we have a good chance to win because that means we succeeded at turning new voters out. A lot of people we talked to are excited, but as I'm sure Asma could tell you, there's also a lot of uncertainty, a lot of hesitation about making that final decision in this crowded field.

KHALID: I think that's what's been most striking to me is the number of caucusgoers up till last night at some of these final rallies...

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Who told me that they still don't know. Some of them asked me - coming to me as a reporter, being like, you know, you've covered all these people. What do you think I should do? I said, that's not really my job, but I hope that you'll listen to our coverage. But I think people feel so perplexed about what to do, and more so than we saw certainly four years ago.

But, Mary Louise, I will say one thing I think that is so striking about this year is that even if people do not know who they want as a candidate, there is a lot of enthusiasm on the Democratic side about the need to defeat Donald Trump. And because of that, I think, to Scott's point, we likely - you know, the party is saying they expect to see record levels of turnout.

KELLY: So if people - a lot of people still haven't made up their mind, you're telling me, and there are some new rules in place that might make the early dynamics a little bit more fluid. Does that mean we might see - I don't know - a more dynamic night than in caucuses past?

DETROW: I think it's truly liberating as a journalist right now to have no idea how this is going to turn out in a few hours. I mean, you have this big chunk of - you know, up to 40% we were seeing in a lot of surveys could change their mind. And, of course, the caucus process - you go, you hear campaigns make their arguments. You see your friends and neighbors picking opponents or maybe the same side as you. There's a lot of persuasion that can happen in the moment in a way that just going into a voting booth, it doesn't happen. So I think we could see a whole range of outcomes tonight, and I'm really excited to see what happens. I could spend the next 10 minutes giving you a scenario of how any one of these candidates comes out on top in Iowa.

KHALID: And this is also one of the issues...

KELLY: We may have time tonight as the live coverage unfolds - Asma.

DETROW: (Laughter).

KHALID: I was going to mention that I think what will also be interesting is we're going to get a chance to see first voter preferences this year. We've never seen that information before, but what it means is that the actual winner might not match the person who came in and got the most preferences the first go-around. So I think what we could see is candidates spinning these results...

KELLY: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Whichever way looks favorable to them.

KELLY: Just briefly, whichever of you wants to take this - but what are the stakes for the candidates in terms of who needs to have a really strong finish going forward into the next primaries and caucuses to come?

DETROW: You know, I think looking at the top four, I think the candidate who has the most riding on tonight is Pete Buttigieg. He is, of course, the exception to this campaign that has been dominated by known faces who have been on the national scene for a while. He has staked his campaign on Iowa. He's excited a lot of voters here. The question is, does that excitement turn out? When you've basically lived in Iowa and camped out in Iowa for a month, you got to do well in Iowa.

KELLY: Yeah. All right. So y'all have been there, obviously, talking with voters in Iowa and candidates in Iowa. I want to point out that for the first time this year, Iowans away from home will not be locked out of the caucus process necessarily, and that includes Iowans living abroad. This year, there are three international caucuses. They are in Paris, in Glasgow, Scotland, and Tbilisi, Georgia. And I want to just pause there for a minute. Tbilisi, Georgia - going to see if either of you can beat John Horan to the punch. He is one of three Iowans who caucused in Tbilisi, Georgia, earlier today.

JOHN HORAN: My friend and fellow Iowan - my only fellow Iowan friend in Tbilisi texted me, and he'd heard that the Democratic Party of Iowa was initiating these satellite caucuses. And the pun just immediately came to him, and he texted me, caucuses in the Caucasus - this, of course, being the Caucasus region. And it was a great feeling to be part of this. I mean, it was kind of funny to hear the chair say, OK, now everyone separate into the different parts of the room, whereas, of course, it's a very small room. It's just an apartment. It was a very short proceeding, actually. We celebrated with pizza and ranch, as is the custom back in Iowa, and having some Georgian wine on top of that.

KELLY: So that was John Horan, our caucuser in the Caucasus in Tbilisi, Georgia. Scott and Asma, I very much hope that you got some Georgian wine with your pizza and ranch for tonight.

DETROW: I don't know if that's on the menu. I just hope our colleague Scott Horsley heard that because he loves puns more than anyone in the world.

KELLY: We will wrap him into the future coverage. Scott Detrow and Asma Khalid, covering the campaign in Iowa - thanks so much. Talk to you through the night.

DETROW: We'll talk to you soon.

KHALID: Bye-bye - my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.