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Ads, Surrogates And Tele-Town Halls: Warren's Remote Iowa Campaign05:21
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Former presidential candidate Julian Castro, who is campaigning for Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaks with reporters following a small gathering at La Carreta Mexican Grill in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Former presidential candidate Julian Castro, who is campaigning for Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaks with reporters following a small gathering at La Carreta Mexican Grill in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It's a strange moment in Iowa. In any other presidential year, with just days to go before the caucuses, all the major candidates would be holding big rallies across the state to make their closing arguments; a final push to win over undecided voters.

But Thursday afternoon, the Warren campaign had to settle for a gathering of about three dozen supporters in the back room of a Mexican restaurant in Marshalltown --  about an hour outside of Des Moines.

Warren's challenge is shared by fellow senators Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet — all of whom are running for president, but are stuck in Washington as they serve as jurors in the impeachment trial of President Trump.

"There's no question that if [Warren] could be in Iowa throughout this time before the caucus she would be," said Julian Castro, the former Obama administration secretary of housing and urban development. Castro was running for president, but has thrown his support behind Warren since dropping out of the race. He's one of several high profile Warren surrogates, along with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley; Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu; Warren's husband, Bruce Mann and of course, her Golden retriever, Bailey.

"The good news is that the Iowans that I meet, most of them have already met Senator Warren," Castro said. "They've had the opportunity to listen to her in person because she has done a lot of work in the state, and I think that is going to pay off on Monday."

Warren was the first major candidate to come to Iowa more than a year ago, and has one of the biggest organizations in the state with about 150 staffers.

She also has a core of loyal supporters including Diane Lemker, from Marshalltown, Iowa, who said she believes in Warren's many plans — in particular, her promise to tackle government corruption.

"Especially with this administration," Lemker said. "All the things that were norms before that we thought that a president couldn't do or a cabinet couldn't do — they're doing them and there's nobody to stop them. So I feel like she can work to get the corruption out, [and] structure things so they can't be done that way in the future."

Lemker said she's not worried that Warren is not here. But a number of recent polls suggest the campaign has lost momentum. So not being in Iowa in this crucial moment poses a challenge for her, while offering an opportunity to her Democratic rivals.

While Warren and the other three senators are absent, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are campaigning furiously across the state. Not long after Castro left Marshalltown Thursday afternoon, Buttigieg arrived for a raucous rally, making a case that he can unite a dangerously divided country.

"I think you are going to make me the next president and when you do, I will do everything I can to make you proud," Buttigieg declared to loud cheers, urging the crowd to "please spread the word."

Presidential candidate Pete Buttegieg speaks to supporters at a town hall event at the Midnight Ballroom in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Presidential candidate Pete Buttegieg speaks to supporters at a town hall event at the Midnight Ballroom in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"Seeing him face-to-face two times now, he's genuine," said April Long, an Iowa Democrat who plans to caucus for Buttigieg. "I think he can bridge the horrible divide that our country has experienced in these last few years."

For his part, Joe Biden is in the midst of a 20-city bus tour across Iowa — though it turns out he hopped on a plane for at least one of the legs. After attending his rally Monday morning in Waukee, Glenda Kernen said she intends to support the former vice president because she believes he has the best shot at beating Donald Trump.

"I love Elizabeth [Warren]," she said. "I've seen her several times, but I still think Biden could duke it out [with Trump] — because, I'm sorry, he's a man. And I'm ready for a woman ... but I'm still not sure America is."

Supporters cheer as presidential candidate Joe Biden steps up to the podium before a speech at the Vince Meyer Learning Center in Waukee, Iowa, part of his “Soul of the Nation” tour. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Supporters cheer as presidential candidate Joe Biden steps up to the podium before a speech at the Vince Meyer Learning Center in Waukee, Iowa, part of his “Soul of the Nation” tour. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In recent days, Warren released a pair of ads across Iowa, one of which is called "Why She Will Beat Him," which responds directly to Kernen's concern

"He grew up in a mansion in New York City. She grew up here in Oklahoma," the narrator says in the ad. "He got millions from his dad's real estate empire. Her Dad ended up a janitor. He scammed students at his for-profit schools. She got debts forgiven for students who were scammed."

So, while Warren may be absent from the state for now, she's very much on the air. And earlier this week, she held a telephone town hall with Iowa voters. Even so, in an interview with WBUR earlier this week, Warren acknowledged the challenge of being off the campaign trail during these important days before the caucuses. But she said there is important work to do in Washington.

"You know, there are just some things more important than politics," Warren said. "And this is only the third impeachment in the history of this country. I took an oath to be here."

With signs the impeachment trial may be close to concluding, Warren — along with Sanders, Klobuchar and Bennet — will try to make up as much time as they can.

This segment aired on January 31, 2020.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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