Democrats Make Final Appeals in a Cloudy 2020 Iowa Caucus Race

DES MOINES — The Democratic presidential candidates pleaded with voters in Iowa for their last-minute consideration on Sunday, competing with the Super Bowl for caucusgoers’ attention and straining against an atmosphere of unusual uncertainty and indecision among Democrats ahead of the first-in-the-nation nominating contest.

The cancellation on Saturday night of a final pre-caucus poll from The Des Moines Register and CNN, because of a survey error, frustrated campaigns that had come to depend on the poll as a reliable omen of caucus results. But strategists for several campaigns said there was a deepening sense that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had an advantage ahead of Monday’s contest.

Public polling has shown Mr. Sanders gaining ground, and he has outspent all of the other leading Democrats on television by a wide margin in recent weeks. A New York Times polling average found Mr. Sanders and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. tied for first place in the state, with each of them collecting support from about 22 percent of likely caucusgoers. Trailing them in third and fourth place were former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Mr. Sanders campaigned on Sunday in a confident tone, concluding a speech in Iowa City by standing beside his wife, Jane, and urging the crowd to imagine them in the White House: “Some of you are unhappy with me and some of you think I might not be a great president,” he said. “Understand, she will be a great first lady!”

Should Mr. Sanders emerge as a convincing victor from Monday’s caucuses, he would aim to carry that momentum forward into next week’s primary in New Hampshire, where he was already seen as having an upper hand, and the Nevada caucuses later this month. But there is still widespread concern among Democratic Party leaders and center-left primary voters about the implications of nominating a self-described democratic socialist to take on President Trump. Mr. Sanders’s allies acknowledge there is little chance he will be able to lock up the nomination without a long fight.

“Why don’t you let Joni Ernst know just how smart you are, and caucus for me?” Mr. Biden said, earning a standing ovation from voters in Dubuque.

Calling the impeachment process a “sham trial,” Mr. Biden encouraged Iowans to “hold Trump accountable” by supporting the former vice president on Monday.

But in an outlandish episode that seemed to reflect some senior Democrats’ alarm about Mr. Sanders’s strength here, NBC reported on Sunday afternoon that John F. Kerry, the former secretary of state, had been overheard in a Des Moines hotel talking about the possibility of entering the presidential race to stop Mr. Sanders from “taking down the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Kerry, who has been campaigning across the state as a surrogate for Mr. Biden, wrote on Twitter that he was “absolutely not running for president” and reaffirmed his support for Mr. Biden. But he notably did not deny having had the conversation NBC reported.

If Democratic voters had been anxious, even tortured, about the task of choosing just one option in the 2020 race, over the weekend there was visible enthusiasm for many of the candidates, who were addressing swollen audiences on college campuses and in local gymnasiums.

“The bad news is, there’s no more room inside,” Ms. Warren joked to an overflow crowd at Simpson College. “The good news is, there’s no more room inside!”

Mr. Buttigieg, who addressed a crowd of about 2,000 people on the South Side of Des Moines on Sunday, acknowledged to reporters that his campaign had to clear a high bar on Monday. Among the top candidates in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg has by far the most ground to make up in national polls and he is counting on a burst of new energy.

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