DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Democrats are displaying far less passion for Hillary Clinton than for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont three weeks before the presidential caucuses, creating anxiety inside the Clinton campaign as she scrambles to energize supporters and to court wavering voters.
The enthusiasm gap spilled abundantly into view in recent days, from the cheering crowds and emotional outpourings that greeted Sanders, and in interviews with more than 50 Iowans at campaign stops for both candidates.
Voters have mobbed Sanders at events since Friday, some jumping over chairs to shake his hand or snap a selfie. "Did you get to touch him?" asked one woman who could not get close enough after an event here on Saturday.
"We love you, Bernie! Enough is enough!" Nathan Arentsen, 29, cheered at another event in Des Moines, stamping his feet emphatically.
With a new poll showing Sanders closing within 3 points of her in Iowa, Clinton and her aides have dropped any pretense that they can ignore Sanders or treat him like a gadfly. They have become zealous and combative as they try new ways to undercut his high favorability ratings.
On Monday, Clinton proposed raising the income tax by 4 percentage points for people earning more than $5 million a year, an idea virtually out of the Sanders playbook. At the same time, she is aggressively challenging Sanders on gun control and health care, undertaking relentless attacks on Sanders that can feel somewhat forced, like portraying him as an ally of the National Rifle Association.
On Tuesday, Clinton even mocked Sanders at one point, imitating his defense for supporting a bill shielding gun manufacturers and dealers from liability. "He says, 'Well, I'm from Vermont,'" Clinton noted before saying that home-state concerns were not a sufficient explanation.
She is also trying to tap into the popularity of President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton after insisting for months that she was not running for a third term for either man.
Clinton advisers said they believed Iowa was a single-digit race and have been warning supporters against complacency, admitting that Sanders' operation in the state was better financed and organized than they had expected. On Saturday, they began trying to undercut his electability with a television ad casting Clinton as the strongest possible Democratic nominee, even though some polls show Sanders would perform well in matchups against Republicans like Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
An event Monday in Waterloo underscored Clinton's challenge: About 300 people welcomed her enthusiastically and listened to her diligently, but many of them, still unsure, rebuffed Clinton aides trying to get them to sign "commitment cards" to caucus for her.
"I personally want to find out if she's trustworthy or not," said Katie Bailey, 71, of Cedar Falls. "There's so much untrust. I want to eyeball her."
Matt Fagerlind, 36, also attended the Clinton event, but he found himself thinking about how Sanders' rallies had the same uplifting emotional intensity as Barack Obama's in 2008. "I think Sanders is going to give her a good run," he said, describing himself as unmoved by Clinton and planning to vote for Sanders.
(Ultimately, a Clinton aide said, about half of the audience signed commitment cards.)
A Sanders victory in Iowa would be a shock, given the institutional advantages held by Clinton, a former secretary of state and a favorite of the Iowa Democratic establishment. It would also set off significant momentum for Sanders heading into the Feb. 9 primary in New Hampshire, where he holds a slight lead in the polls.
Several of Clinton's advisers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race candidly, said that they were anxious but not panicking about Iowa and that they believed she would still deliver a victory here.
Still, some advisers said they were torn about whether the campaign would ultimately regret purposely holding small events in Iowa — a strategy Clinton preferred — given Sanders' ability to continue to turn out and energize huge crowds, which they had not anticipated.
Some members of her Iowa team, however, said they were confident that passion for Clinton was intensifying.
"It's something that's growing closer to caucus day," said Kane Miller, the Clinton campaign's organizing director for Polk County, which includes Des Moines. "This previous weekend was negative degrees, and 80 percent of people confirmed to volunteer were out knocking on doors. That's a great measure of enthusiasm."
Both Sanders and Clinton garnered several rounds of applause on Monday night at the Brown and Black Forum at Drake University here, although the crowd seemed more delighted with Sanders as he denounced a 51 percent unemployment rate for black men with a high school education and joked that he would consider living in the White House to be public housing.
The warmth for Sanders was notable because of Clinton's historical popularity among minority voters, particularly African-Americans. She drew cheers for saying she would not use the term "illegal immigrant" and for pledging to help Central American countries stem the violence that people there flee.
A poll published on Tuesday, by Quinnipiac University, found that Sanders had jumped to a lead in Iowa, with 49 percent to Clinton's 44 percent, after trailing her by 11 points in mid-December. The Quinnipiac poll also found that liberal Iowans were the most enthusiastic about the election, and that Sanders was the favorite among these voters. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Tuesday showed Clinton's once formidable lead nationally shrinking from 20 points a month ago to 7 points.
The tightened race is revealing a sharp generational divide within the Democratic Party, with primary voters under age 45 favoring Sanders by a roughly 2-1 ratio.
The Clinton campaign still has significant structural advantages in Iowa to help turn out caucus voters. The state's most popular Democrats have endorsed Clinton, including former Sen. Tom Harkin and former Gov. Tom Vilsack, helping her leverage their political networks. She also has endorsements from several unions and groups like the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Advisers for Clinton say they have strong organizations in the most populous counties and have compiled data on tens of thousands of Democrats, many of whom who are receiving phone calls or visits from teams of volunteers who crowd field offices like Miller's. Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, is also a veteran of caucus contests, while strategists like Joel Benenson were part of Obama's campaign in 2008.
Sanders' supporters point to his grass-roots strengths: He has more than 14,000 volunteers in Iowa, and he has spoken to more than 40,000 people at events in the state so far, huge numbers that include young people, independents and new voters who might not be on pollsters' call sheets. (Clinton's advisers declined to say how many volunteers she had or people she had spoken to in Iowa.)
"I think his secret weapon, maybe his silver bullet even, is the young adult population that hasn't been involved in politics up until this point," said Katie Mitchell, 28, a middle school teacher who lives in Des Moines.
Clinton's campaign is trying to shore up her base among female voters: Lena Dunham, the star of the HBO series "Girls," was deployed on Saturday to make a feminist pitch for Clinton to crowds of mostly young women in Iowa. Yet many younger women who gathered did not share Dunham's visceral enthusiasm for Clinton, saying that for most of their lives she has been a familiar fixture of establishment politics rather than an exciting new voice or an agent of change.
"Bernie Sanders feels new, and Hillary seems like a Washington insider," said Laura Cornell, 17, who was encouraged by friends to hear Dunham's pitch but remained committed to Sanders.
Many of the Sanders supporters interviewed said they felt personally moved by what they described as his sincerity. Bert Permar, 86, a retired professor, said he had gone to four Sanders events and was now making calls to share the candidate's message.
"I love to see him. He motivates me," Permar said on Sunday, sitting in the front row at a Sanders forum on veterans' issues in Marshalltown. "I get emotional. It brings tears that someone is talking about the issues that we should be concerned about."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing