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Democratic Presidential Campaigns Continue, Even With Senators Tied To Washington


This year is an unusual presidential race for all kinds of reasons. Not only is the Senate holding an impeachment trial for the incumbent, four of the people hoping to replace him are Senators stuck in Washington for the duration.

To get a sense of this unusual dynamic and what's been happening in Iowa and New Hampshire without some of the frontrunners, we are joined by two of our reporters covering the race. Scott Detrow is here in Washington, just like those senators. And Asma Khalid is in Manchester, N.H.

Good to have you both here.



SHAPIRO: Let's start by listening to Senator Sanders talking to his supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, at the beginning of this week.


BERNIE SANDERS: I'm going to be stuck in Washington for God knows how long. So we need you to take my place. Give two hours speeches like I do, you know?

SHAPIRO: You can always count on him to be frank. Scott, how big of a problem is it that these candidates are stuck in the capital?

DETROW: To drop some top-notch punditry on you, it is hard to run for president when you are threatened with arrest for speaking...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

DETROW: ...For hours at a time. Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bennet are all in the Senate chamber for hours and hours at a time at a time when you would be campaigning as much as possible. They're doing their best to get around this. There are TV cameras and reporters everywhere in the building. And every break, you see the presidential candidates making their way to a camera...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Right now, we have with us Democratic Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Michael Bennet of Colorado.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and as you know, a presidential candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and she joins us now from Washington.

DETROW: ...To talk to cable news, to talk to reporters, to do hits with local stations in New Hampshire and Iowa.


DETROW: And you're also seeing them be a little bit creative. Amy Klobuchar has sent her daughter Abigail out on the campaign trail in Iowa.


ABIGAIL BESSLER: Hello. I came up with Brooklyn, N.Y., to Brooklyn, Iowa. And I'm actually finding there's a lot more similarities between the two than you would think.

SHAPIRO: Is this a campaign ad?

DETROW: Her daughter took over her Twitter account. They're trying to do creative ways on social media as well. Bernie Sanders has a little bit more surrogate firepower than Amy Klobuchar. He has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez out campaigning for him this week.

SHAPIRO: Well, this gives a little more elbow room to people like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. Asma, I know you were with the former vice president today. Does his campaign have an advantage here with the others being stuck in the Senate?

KHALID: So, you know, he will not say - nor will his campaign openly say that this gives them an advantage. But let's be clear - he was campaigning today, this morning, in New Hampshire. He has another stop in New Hampshire tomorrow. Those senators that Scott was talking about, they can't be here in New Hampshire today and tomorrow. So I think it's fair to say.

And, you know, look; I hear this more so from voters both in Iowa and in New Hampshire - I was just recently in Iowa - who will say to me, you know, look; Pete Buttigieg can be out here. Joe Biden can. And they wonder what it's going to be like for some of these senators. But at this point, you know, I will say you're not going to hear a campaign openly acknowledge this built-in advantage that they have.

SHAPIRO: Well, there has been a substantive disagreement this week over Social Security, kind of a nasty fight between Sanders and Biden. Scott, explain it.

DETROW: This is a situation where two candidates with decades-long voting records, track records of public statements, those long records are coming into focus. Bernie Sanders has been highlighting and his campaign has been posting videos of statements Joe Biden made when he was a senator in the 1990s talking about the need, as part of broader reining in of government spending, to take a look at freezing or even trimming Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, things very popular with Democratic voters.


JOE BIDEN: When I argued if we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veteran benefits - I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.

DETROW: Now the Biden campaign has pushed back pretty hard, saying this takes the broader context out of things, that he was talking about cutting spending everywhere. And he has said that as president, he would strengthen Social Security by increasing revenue going into it and by even expanding it, not talking about freezing or cutting it at all. And Biden has pushed back saying look; if we want to look at long voting records, let's look at the fact that Bernie Sanders voted against a lot of gun control in the 1990s during this same period.


BIDEN: I find it amazing that we go back and look at statements, many of them - most of them taken out of context of 10, 20, 30, 35 years ago. It's like my going back and pointing out how Bernie voted against the Brady Bill five times while I was trying to get it passed when he was in the House.

DETROW: You can expect the two of them to continue clarifying their differences. This is one of those examples of the Democratic Party changing how it views things and Joe Biden changing along with it, where Bernie Sanders, when he was such an outlier in, you know, the mid-1990s or even five, 10 years ago is now where a lot of the party is now.

SHAPIRO: Speaking of attacks, Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, launched some this week. But they were not targeted at fellow Democrats, and not even just at President Trump. He's taking on Republican senators here.


MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: When the Republican Congress wouldn't hold him accountable, I went to work helping run winning campaigns in 21 House seats. It's time for the Senate to act and remove Trump from office. And if they won't do their jobs this November, you and I will.

SHAPIRO: Asma, what is this strategy by Mayor Bloomberg?

KHALID: So, Ari, I think that a lot of Democratic voters are wondering about this. I mean, the TV spot there that we heard, that is interesting because it's running in states with Republican senators who are facing these pretty tight reelection contests. So, you know, think of Susan Collins in Maine - right? - or Cory Gardner in Colorado. And Michael Bloomberg has another hit out recently also that's talking about the Pentagon and President Trump there, another ad targeting President Trump and infrastructure. And he, you know, in some ways, is really trying to get under the president's skin.

You know, he is somebody who has a lot of money. He has spent to date about a quarter of a billion dollars. It is just so much more money than what we're seeing some of these other candidates spend. And, you know, he's not running - he's not really competing in any of the first four early voting states. And so I think a lot of questions that Democratic voters have right now is, well, what is he doing? Is he running for the Democratic nomination, or is he running against President Trump and against Republicans more broadly? And I don't know that we'll have clarity on that answer until we actually move beyond the first four states.

SHAPIRO: So with so many different approaches by the various candidates and just 10 days until the Iowa caucuses, what are you both looking for?

DETROW: I think we truly have no idea who's going to win the Iowa caucuses, which is liberating...

SHAPIRO: That's exciting.

DETROW: ...And exciting and interesting. We have seen - a few more polls are probably going to come out this weekend, but we have seen different leaders in different polls in different times, and by and large, those four top candidates all about within the margin of error. All of these campaigns have organizers on the ground making sure people are ready to show up and caucus on February 3. And I think whatever the result may be will drastically shift these national polls we've been paying so much attention to.

SHAPIRO: Those four, just to clarify, being Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg.

DETROW: Yes. And at the same time, you have Amy Klobuchar getting several key endorsements and feeling like she is gaining some support at the right time.

SHAPIRO: Asma, what are you looking for?

KHALID: You know, I don't know that we have any certainty about what's going to be happening. And that's what makes covering this election so exciting, is the degree of uncertainty that we have. And I often get the question from voters, you know, what do you think is going to go on? You traveled all these other states. They want the intel because they want to know who they should go with because they want to choose the candidate that is most, quote, unquote, "electable."

So I am very curious to see where we end up after the Iowa caucuses. But because of that, I do get the sense that Super Tuesday, when we are going to have a massive haul of delegates - you're just going to have a lot of delegates at stake in places like California and Texas - that Super Tuesday is going to be really consequential. And I know that that's weeks and weeks away at this point, but all I'd say is this election, this primary, could be going on for a little while.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Asma Khalid in Manchester, N.H., Hampshire and Scott Detrow here in Washington, thank you both.

DETROW: Sure thing.

KHALID: You're welcome.


Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.