DES MOINES, Iowa — Time dragged on at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration. The top-polling candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders — already had spoken. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet waited his turn Friday night.
Bennet had to wait for Iowa’s state auditor to address the crowd. Then Democrats circulated pink plastic buckets, the political version of passing the collection plate at church on a Sunday. Three members of Iowa’s congressional delegation had their say.
Finally, it was Bennet’s turn.
Rows of empty seats in the once full Wells Fargo Arena greeted him and the other lower-polling presidential hopefuls who were scheduled to speak in the second round at the event.
The candidates hammered President Donald Trump, calling him a fraud, a failure, a criminal, a pathological liar and more.
“I’m not scared of Donald Trump, and I don’t think you are either,” Bennet said. “I know what to do with a schoolyard bully like Donald Trump, and I need your help. I need your help, Iowa.”
“Iowa, here’s another idea. We could make our schools engines of opportunity again in the United States of America. And we could do that, not by promising free college, but by delivering free preschool to every kid in America.”
Iowa. Bennet repeatedly called out to the state.
“Iowa, if you want somebody who will tell you the truth, even when it’s hard to do it, join my campaign.”
Iowa on Feb. 3 will be the first state to caucus, giving the nation an indication of who will likely be the nominee for president.
More than 13,000 tickets were sold for the event. Campaigns handed them out to supporters. CNN surmised that “there was no doubt” that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Indianapolis Mayor Pete Buttigieg bought the most tickets and “had the rowdiest supporters.”
Some Buttigieg boosters wore T-shirts that read “Boot Edge Edge” to help with the difficult pronunciation of the candidate’s last name.
Betty Wolfe, a retired teacher from Des Moines, first met Buttigieg in May when he came to Des Moines.
“When I heard him speak,” she said, “I was smitten.”
Bennet is less enamored. He didn’t call out Buttigieg by name but it was clear who he was talking about when he mentioned his background as the former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
“It’s a school district that’s got about a billion dollar budget. For reference, that's about three times the size of a certain municipality in the state of Indiana. I’m just saying,” he said.
So, is Bennet frustrated that Buttigieg is gaining momentum?
“I’m not frustrated,” Bennet said, “but I think it’s useful for people to know.”
Bennet might not be winning over the crucial caucus-goers he needs to be among the top tier of candidates, but he has impressed newspaper columnists and opinion writers.
Over the summer he met with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board, at times pounding on the table to make his point. The newspaper called him a “truth-teller — someone on the inside who doesn’t mince words about why everything’s screwed up.”
“So let us pound this point into the table: Iowa caucus-goers – even those supporting other candidates – would be well-served to give Bennet more attention. He offers a much-needed reality check on the promises candidates are offering and what it will take to accomplish meaningful change.”
That message is now printed on blue foam gavels Bennet’s team handed out at the arena.
The truth-teller’s campaign keeps on going.
Lynn Bartels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org