CLEAR LAKE, Iowa >> The Democratic presidential candidates paused here for a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, underscoring how the turbulent events of the past week have refocused the primary contest.
The brief lull in the primary campaign came as nearly the entire field descended on Northern Iowa tonight for the Wing Ding dinner, an annual event that has long served as an early testing ground for Democratic presidential aspirants.
In speech after speech, the candidates assailed President Donald Trump and Republicans for their lack of action on gun control, painting the party as allied with white supremacy.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio recounted his recent trip to Kentucky, where he led protests of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, for not acting on gun control legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
“We need gun reform in America and we need it now,” Ryan said, bringing the crowd to its feet. “People are dying on the streets of this country, getting killed by weapons that were made for battlefields not neighborhoods like Dayton, Ohio.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey used his five-minute slot to deliver a somber sermon on the “moral moment” faced by the country.
“This is a week where I will not let the slaughter of our fellow citizens just disappear within the next media cycle,” he said.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who received rapturous applause from the crowd, focused his remarks on turning the page from the Trump presidency, describing white nationalism as a “national security threat.”
“We’ve got to win not just the era but the future of this country,” Buttigieg said. “We are going to fix things in this country; we are going to do it together.”
The party fundraiser, held at Clear Lake’s iconic Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played his final rock show before dying in a plane crash in a nearby cornfield, has become an essential stop for Democratic presidential contenders.
Barack Obama spoke here in 2007 before his presidential campaign caught fire. And last year, when Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer, was weighing a presidential bid, he wowed the crowd and presaged the 2020 campaign by urging Democrats to fight as dirty as Trump does.
(Avenatti abandoned his presidential hopes in December. Four months later he was charged in a scheme to extort Nike, the shoe manufacturer.)
Since the mass shootings last weekend, many in the Democratic primary field have heightened their denunciations of Trump, labeling him a racist and a white supremacist. The back-to-back shootings shook the nation, giving Democratic candidates fresh opportunities to contrast themselves with the man they hope to replace.
As he left the White House on Friday night for a vacation at his New Jersey golf club, Trump called for lawmakers to pass “meaningful” background checks, a sign that the president finds himself under new political pressure.
Even so, there were no major signals Friday from the National Rifle Association, the White House or Capitol Hill that action on the politically fraught issue was closer to compromise or resolution.
The speeches at the Wing Ding dinner surpassed the three-hour mark, with 22 candidates delivering pitches in back-to-back-to-back five-minute increments to a sweaty room of Democratic activists. Several opened their comments with cracks about the size of the field, a reality that’s begun to worry party officials and voters.
Setting himself apart from his rivals, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke stayed home in El Paso to attend memorials and visit with shooting victims in his mourning hometown.
“I’m here to make sure that at this moment we do not allow ourselves to be defined by this act of terror,” he said by way of a video message, “but instead by the way this community overcomes this attack.”
Outside, young boosters for a half-dozen campaigns chanted and screamed at one another. Someone played “Come on Eileen” for no discernible reason. And former Vice President Joe Biden slow jogged outside to greet his supporters.
Of course, as Holly once crooned, everyday the caucuses are “a-getting closer” and the race is “a-getting faster.” The weekend signifies the unofficial start of the fall campaign season, a time when the field is likely to narrow as candidates fail to qualify for debates and start hemorrhaging campaign cash.
The dinner comes as the field battles to overtake Biden, who has commanded a steady lead in the race despite a series of gaffes. On Thursday evening, Biden raised eyebrows during a speech in Iowa when he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
A new survey in the state shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts gaining ground and Sen. Bernie Sanders sliding. The Vermont senator’s win in the caucuses three years ago fueled his insurgent campaign.
Both senators will greet voters at the fair this weekend, joining a parade of candidates stopping by the beloved annual event that draws voters from across the state.
Julian Castro took his children on a tour of the cattle barns that included the former housing secretary taking an unfortunate step in cow manure. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard sampled the vegan corn dog, hoping she did not offend Iowans by skipping the famous pork chop-on-a-stick.
Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur who qualified Thursday for the next debate, regaled voters and reporters with his experience eating supersized turkey legs, as he stopped for photos during a tour of the fair.
“I’m a big fan of Renaissance fairs,” he explained.