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White House hopefuls brace for Iowa vote with Sanders surging

Unlike secret ballot voting, caucus-goers publicly declare their presidential choice by standing together with other supporters of a candidate.

After seven debates, countless rallies and an impeachment effort to remove the US president, Iowa holds the first in a series of votes across the nation on Monday to decide the Democratic challenger for the White House — led by a surging Bernie Sanders.

The 78-year-old standard-bearer for the progressive wing has snatched the momentum — and shaken the party establishment — in a series of recent opinion polls casting him as the favorite.

Despite the historically diverse field of men and women of color and young candidates with little Washington exposure, the main challenge comes from the Democratic old guard — former vice president and fellow septugenarian Joe Biden.

“If the voter turnout is high, if people get involved who do not usually get involved… if young people, if working-class people come on out, not only can we win, I think we can win big,” Sanders, the junior senator for Vermont, said at a weekend campaign event in Iowa.

In a typical election year, the state absorbs the country’s full political attention. But exactly nine months from Election Day, this presidential cycle has been anything but normal.

Looming over the process is Trump’s impeachment saga, which is coming to a climax on Wednesday with acquittal almost certain in the Republican-led Senate.

Three senators — Sanders and fellow leftist Elizabeth Warren, and moderate Amy Klobuchar — have faced the unprecedented scenario of spending much of the past two weeks tethered to Washington for the impeachment trial, essentially leaving them to campaign in Iowa with one hand tied behind their back.

Add January’s military scare with Iran, a stubborn trade war with China, a deadly outbreak of novel coronavirus that has set parts of the world on edge — and US Democratic hopefuls find themselves competing for headlines.

Trump is all but certain to be confirmed as the Republican nominee at the party’s national convention August 24-27 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Iowa’s all-important vote will likely whittle the Democratic field further as it provides the first verifiable results in a contest deciding the party’s future direction, and its 2020 flagbearer.

The Democratic primaries culminate July 13-16 when delegates to the party’s national nominating convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin will decide who runs against Trump on November 3.

An Emerson College poll of Democratic voters released on the eve of the caucuses shows Sanders with 28 percent support, seven points clear of centrist Biden, who is the national frontrunner.

South Bend, Indiana ex-mayor Pete Buttigieg and Warren are about four points behind Biden in poll averages.

Second-tier hopefuls Klobuchar and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang look to outpace expectations and seize momentum heading into the next contest, in New Hampshire February 11.

“This is the most consequential election, certainly in the modern history of this country … and it all begins tomorrow night,” Sanders told supporters on Sunday in Iowa City.

Similar scenes played out across the state this weekend as candidates made their final frantic push to convince undecided voters that they are best positioned to send the controversial incumbent packing.

“I promise you: if you stand with me, we will end Trump’s reign of hatred and division,” Biden said as he rallied 1,100 supporters at a Des Moines middle school.

Trump has not stood idly by. The pugnacious president has repeatedly attacked Democrats, and did so on Sunday, branding Biden “Sleepy Joe” — his campaign events often lack the pizzazz of rivals — and hurling an epithet at Sanders.

“I think he’s a communist,” Trump told Fox News, previewing a likely line of attack were Sanders to win the nomination.

Iowa’s stage is set. At 7.00pm, nearly 1,700 schools, libraries, churches and other venues welcome the state’s registered Democrats to participate in a quirky, sometimes chaotic American ritual.

Unlike secret ballot voting, caucus-goers publicly declare their presidential choice by standing together with other supporters of a candidate.

Candidates who reach 15 percent support earn delegates for the nomination race. If a candidate does not meet this threshold after the first alignment of caucus-goers, their supporters can shift to other candidates, a process that potentially can reorder the rankings.

Turnout is critical, and candidates and their representatives will seek to persuade voters on issues including health care, taxes and ending Washington corruption.

A former US Navy reservist who became a mayor at 29, Buttigieg portrays his youth and new ideas as reasons voters should prefer him over the white-haired Biden, 77, and Sanders.

“Clearly we need a strong finish,” he told CNN on Monday, adding that candidates hoping to beat Trump in the autumn must show they can turn out voters.

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