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Latest On Democratic Presidential Candidates Harris And Buttigieg In Iowa


There's still 20 candidates in the Democratic primary race, but voters seem to be focused on just three of them - former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The increasing consolidation has the rest of the crowded field struggling to stay relevant. NPR's Scott Detrow is here to talk more.

Welcome to the studio.


Hey. Good afternoon.

CORNISH: I want to start with Kamala Harris. She had a breakout moment after the first debate with her criticism of Joe Biden, but now it seems like she's struggling. Tell us how we know that and what she's going to do to change it.

DETROW: Well, she saw a huge surge in the polls after that first debate, and it's really all gone away and then some. She's now in the mid-single digits in a lot of national and state surveys. So one word to fix that - Iowa. Harris told another senator this week, not realizing that reporter Matt Laszlo could overhear her and post what she said, that she was bleeping moving to Iowa. No bleeps, as she put it, though.

Today her campaign confirmed that, even joking about that tweet, saying expect to see Harris there at least once a week over the next month and really focus her attention and resources. They said that their goal is a top three finish in Iowa. And that's a pretty significant departure to what the campaign strategy had been up until now.

CORNISH: I mean, what does a move like that tell us about how the campaign's going?

DETROW: You know, for a long time, Harris had focused attention on South Carolina - that's the first state where African American voters make up a majority of the Democratic primary world - And then focusing on the Super Tuesday states that vote just three days later, which includes California, her home state and the state with the biggest delegates. And this is an acknowledgement that that plan didn't seem to be working.

You know, there's a few reasons for that. A big one is that, by and large, African American voters so far are really sticking with Joe Biden by very wide margins. So Harris is trying to do well in that first contest and to prove that she has what so many Democratic voters want which is electability - which is a nebulous, subjective term, could mean a lot of different things. But there's one clear definition of electability, and that is winning the early caucuses and races.

CORNISH: Tell us a little bit more about the other people who are struggling.

DETROW: Yeah. Pete Buttigieg is another candidate who, like Harris, had that early moment of buzz, was in the news a ton and then has kind of faded from the focus of the conversation since then. He is picking up the pace in Iowa as well.

And, you know, reboots of popular '90s and early 2000 shows and movies are all the rage right now. We have a political version of that. And his campaign is rebooting the iconic idea of John McCain's Straight Talk Express. They're about to go on a four-day tour of Iowa and do what John McCain did and have reporters on the bus the whole time, have everything on the record.

They both got a lot of media attention. And they've realized that that goes away when the poll numbers go down. One way to get that attention back up is to say, hey, reporters, come on the bus and report anything you want. So that's his plan. But again, both are focusing on Iowa.

CORNISH: A lot of people have criticized the power that a state like Iowa has essentially because they're so early in the process. Is winning there as important as these candidates are making it out to be?

DETROW: You know, it's definitely true that if you look a lot of races, a win there can reshape the race. And it's also true that Iowans make up their mind pretty late, which is something that, you know, the rest of the 20-some field of candidates are seeing.

Many campaigns are pointing to the 2004 primary. Late 2003 polls showed Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark with big leads. Of course, Howard Dean had that big surge. And all the while, John Kerry was in low single digits. He went on to win Iowa and then win pretty easily.

A lot of campaigns talk about 2008 as the best example. Hillary Clinton had a wide lead over Barack Obama. But when he won Iowa, when he proved that he could win in a state like that, that reshaped the field in South Carolina, national polls. And he went on to win.

I think the counterpoint is Donald Trump, who was the front runner for a long stretch of 2015 and 2016. And even though he lost Iowa, the race never really reshuffled, and he went on to, of course, become president.

CORNISH: What does it mean for these candidates who have a big constituency like an Andrew Yang - right? - if they're finding they're behind.

DETROW: You know, I think Andrew Yang has certainly been in a position that maybe Kamala Harris has not found himself in, where he's found a consistent message that's resonating and growing support. I think he's continuing to have a role on the stage, to have people drawn to him for a specific reason. Other candidates are trying to find things like that, their lane. What is it that distinguishes you from the rest of this large field?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

Thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.