BURLINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke became notable presidential candidates in Iowa after narrow losses that nonetheless put them on the national political stage.
They were the two candidates that were racing around Iowa this past weekend as they are competing for the same young voters. O’Rourke in particular has been busy, making six stops in Iowa on Saturday.
They also are the top two campaign fundraisers in the Democratic field.
Sanders, who lost a hard-fought battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, returned to Iowa as the early front-runner after raising $18 million in 41 days during the first quarter of the year.
Meanwhile, O’Rourke, the Democrat who nearly unseated Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, raised $9.4 million in 18 days. That figure outpaced Sanders during the same time frame.
Other hopefuls fanned out to political hot spots elsewhere, with much the same mission: Gauging early strength in a crowded field and raising enough money to secure a coveted spot in the presidential debates that begin in June.
Republican leaders have relished the jockeying among Democrats.
“I’d be happy with any of ’em, to be honest,” the president said of the Democratic derby.
In the meantime, the other Democratic challengers were visiting other early caucus states, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was in Nevada.
Sanders holds town hall in Muscatine
Iowa Democrats know Sanders, the Vermont senator who lost the state — and the Democratic presidential nomination — to Hillary Clinton in 2016. At two town halls in counties he won during that caucus fight, Sanders’ questioners asked most about making health care more affordable.
Over and over, people told Sanders grim stories about medical bills putting them deeply in debt. He empathized, at one point putting an arm around a young woman who had begun weeping as she spoke. Sanders told his audience that he supports “Medicare for All” and a single-payer health care system. But he didn’t get into specifics.
Shannon Abel, a 28-year-old coordinator at a nonprofit organization in Muscatine, Iowa, said she still liked what she heard from Sanders. Then again, she had only begun seriously paying attention to politics after nearly a year of being ill and seeing the medical bills — with an $80 co-pay — put her family deeply in debt.
“He knows what it’s like to not have money,” Abel said.
Sanders also said he wants to make college free and pay for it by getting rid of tax havens and raising taxes for the richest Americans.
That’s been received with some skepticism among budget and deficit hawks. But to Trevor Meyers, 19, it sounds right.
Meyers, like Sanders, is a democratic socialist. The Muscatine County resident attends a nearby college and lives at home with his family, which owns a farm. A sibling, he said, is five figures in debt from college.
“How is anybody in our society going to get started in life?” he wondered.
He liked Sanders, but said he’s going to check out one of O’Rourke’s events too.
O’Rourke stumps in Polk City
O’Rourke is calling for a range of educational changes to alleviate college debt, including providing free community college and allowing students to potentially eliminate or refinance their debt through public service.
“The cost of higher education, and not just tuition, is out of reach for so many of our fellow Americans,” O’Rourke told a crowd gathered for a campaign house party in Polk City, Iowa. He said the tens of thousands in debt that students carry when they graduate “is a weight that literally sinks them into the ground.”
To solve the problem, he offered a number of proposals to help students “stop digging the hole” and stop taking on debt when they go for a college degree: Making community college free, allowing students to earn an associate degree while they’re in high school so they’re “ready to earn a living wage on day one,” increase access to union apprenticeships.
For those already saddled with student loan debt, O’Rourke said he’d like to “re-up the public service student debt forgiveness program” — a federal program that currently accepts only a fraction of applicants and is eliminated altogether in President Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal.
If students are willing to work in in-demand jobs at places like the Department of Veterans Affairs, or “willing to teach school or be in a support role in a community that needs your talent and human capital, I want to wipe clean your student loan debt. At a minimum I want to refinance what you have at a much lower rate.”
Warren says ‘not Trump’ message is not enough
Democrats running for president will have to do more than campaign on an anti-Trump message if they want to take back the White House in 2020, Warren said.
“If your message is ‘not-Trump,’ it’s not going to work,” the Democratic presidential hopeful told about 500 supporters who packed a high school gymnasium in Reno, Nev. “Our job is to talk about our vision.”
Warren, D-Mass., blasted Trump’s economic and environmental policies and touted her plan to invest $500 billion over the next 10 years to build, preserve and rehabilitate affordable housing for low-income families. She said she would pay for it by returning the estate tax thresholds to where they were during President George W. Bush’s administration and imposing a new “wealth” tax on the nation’s 17,000 wealthiest families.
“Washington is working for the ultra-super-duper rich, and until we change that we are going to stay on this path. This is our moment,” she told the cheering crowd.
Warren was making her second campaign stop this year in the early caucus state, which on Feb. 22 follows only New Hampshire and Iowa in the nominating process. She spoke for about 30 minutes, took questions from the audience and posed for photographs for another half hour. More than half the crowd lined up to take selfies with her.