Left or Center? Democrats Mull Best Options to Beat Trump - NBC Bay Area
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Decision 2020

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Left or Center? Democrats Mull Best Options to Beat Trump

The early days of the Democratic contest are dominated by a debate over whether some candidates are moving the party too far left

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    This March 14, 2019, file photo shows 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., addressing a crowd in North Charleston, South Carolina.

    As she waited to meet former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a recent house party in Dubuque, attorney Connie O'Connor was anxious about the liberal direction of the Democratic presidential primary.

    "I know a lot of people who don't want to vote for Donald Trump but don't necessarily want to vote for the presidential version of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez," she said, referring to the recently elected progressive congresswoman from New York. "I think we forget those people are out there."

    But about 80 miles away, union organizer Eli Shepherd pointed to the thousands of people flocking to a Bernie Sanders rally at the University of Iowa as proof that the self-described democratic socialist is best positioned to beat the Republican now in the White House.

    "People get brought in (to the campaign) because it's something they deeply care about," Shepherd said. "When there's a campaign that's actually focused on that, that's what's exciting, that's what's transformative, that's how you win."

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    Democrats have a long fight ahead over this question of who's right.

    The early days of the Democratic contest are dominated by a debate over whether candidates such as Sanders are moving the party too far left or whether the embrace of liberal priorities will fire up the base and help defeat Trump.

    That debate is sure to deepen if former Vice President Joe Biden enters the race and tries to establish himself as a prominent centrist counterweight to Sanders, a Vermont senator. In the opening days of his 2020 campaign, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke has also sought to appeal to both parties.

    "There's a tension, and that's what presidential campaigns are about," said Simon Rosenberg of the New Democratic Network.

    So far, the candidates are racing to prove their progressive bona fides on issues such as "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal.

    Yet surveys suggest Democratic voters are less eager to tack left. A Monmouth Poll last month found 56 percent of registered Democrats said their top priority was a candidate who could beat Trump even if they disagreed with that person on most issues. A Pew Research Center poll in January found that 53 percent of Democrats wanted the party to become more moderate, while 40 percent wanted it to become more liberal.

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    Though a few insurgents won Democratic congressional primaries last year, most notably Ocasio-Cortez, most of those contests were captured by candidates backed by the party establishment.

    Recent campaign swings through Iowa, the nation's leadoff caucus state, by Sanders and by Hickenlooper, a self-described "extreme moderate," illustrated the contradiction in the Democratic field.

    For the Sanders appearance in Iowa City, the soundtrack at the University of Iowa student union featured Tracy Chapman's "Talking About A Revolution" and Muse's "Uprising." Well over 1,000 people wore Sanders T-shirts, hats and buttons, some with 2016-era gear and others sporting the newer 2020 models on sale outside the hall.

    Cheri Pichone, a disability representative, brought a Sanders action figure to the rally. Pichone voted for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in 2016 because she said she believed the Democrats "cheated" to deny Sanders the nomination and she's worried it could happen again.

    "I don't honestly see how anybody could beat him fairly," Pichone said.

    The crowd broke into a deafening roar as Sanders walked to the podium. "This," he said, "is where the political revolution began."

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    Sanders was referring to the 2016 caucuses, when he came within a few votes of defeating front-runner Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Now Sanders is an early leader, raising at least $10 million, almost all in small-dollar donations, since launching his campaign Feb. 19.

    The initial sound of Hickenlooper's first Iowa swing as a presidential candidate was a beer glass shattering.

    Someone inside the packed meeting room at Confluence Brewery in Des Moines dropped a mug just as Hickenlooper walked in. Hickenlooper began scooping up shards of glass. "There's nobody in this room who's cleaned up more broken beer glasses than me," Hickenlooper said.

    Hickenlooper started a brewpub in a then-desolate stretch of downtown Denver after being laid off from his job as a geologist in the 1980s. The business took off, made Hickenlooper wealthy and helped propel him into the Denver mayor's office.

    In Des Moines, he stood in front of a wall of beer cans strategically arranged to create the number "2020," and talked about persuading Republican mayors of suburbs to join Denver in pushing a tax increase to pay for light rail. He recounted, after being elected governor in 2010, how he was able to get the energy industry and environmentalists to agree on limits on methane gas emissions. He bemoaned "a national crisis of division."

    "People in Washington, they spend their lives talking about stuff and debating and pointing fingers and blaming the other side," Hickenlooper said, in an apparent dig at the various senators running. "It's about time to bring people together and get stuff done."

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    In contrast to Sanders, Hickenlooper starts with no base outside of Colorado and little name recognition. He acknowledged he's "a dark horse." One of the most common questions Hickenlooper was asked in Iowa was whether he was related to an Iowa governor and senator with the same last name who served from the 1930s to the 1960s. (The Iowa politician was indeed a distant relative.)

    The day after his Des Moines appearance, Hickenlooper stopped at five separate locations across the state.

    Joel Greenwald, 64, a retired banker, shook Hickenlooper's hand at an event in Cedar Falls. "They're pushing 'free, free, free,'" Greenwald said about supporters of Sanders and other liberals. "You're going to turn off a lot of Republicans and independents if you say 'free free free.'"

    But Greenwald isn't a Hickenlooper supporter. He's waiting for Biden, who is teasing Democrats with the possibility of a third White House run.

    Hickenlooper received enthusiastic cheers when he spoke and wound up his trip in another crowded brewpub in Cedar Rapids. After Hickenlooper gave his speech, the crowd gathered around him. Karla Goettel, 69, made a beeline for the candidate and complained about his refusal on the television show "Morning Joe" to call himself a capitalist.

    "There are a bunch of Democrats who are pissed off at capitalism," Hickenlooper told her.

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    Goettel said Hickenlooper knew he messed up the question. "They're all trying to be careful not to be too far right or too far left," she said. "I just want to find someone electable."