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Iowa State Fair Displayed 2020 Election Contradictions

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Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts drew more people to her speech on the soap box than most of the other candidates combined. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg received a hugely enthusiastic reception at the Wing Ding from the moment he walked out, and it continued through a speech that called for a fresh start with serious answers. Biden, meanwhile, sounded tired and ran long, not realizing that “We Take Care of Our Own,” the Springsteen song his campaign has cribbed from the old Obama playlist, was playing to nudge him off stage. (He tried to shout over the track.)

On Thursday afternoon, I watched Montana Governor Steve Bullock ride a potato sack down a three-story slide with his three children. Eventually, Bullock made his way to the pork pavilion, where he was was handed an apron embroidered with his name and put in charge of grilling the pork burgers. While the governor waited to be told the patties had crisped enough to flip, he talked about his family roots in Iowa, then asked the chef, Spanky, how much his farm had taken a hit from Trump’s tariff wars. (He also wanted to know where the name “Spanky” came from.) While waiting in line to see the butter cow, Bullock told me the fair was “a nice break,” but that he is concerned that the race, so far, isn’t caught up enough with what’s happening in the country. “We can’t have these debates that are disconnected from people’s lives,” he told me.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose campaign is based around his belief that Americans aren’t adequately focused on climate change as an immediate, existential threat, was in an upbeat mood with the reprieve of the weekend. We caught up as he worked the crowd after the Wing Ding. “I know these people have a lot of passion for the things that count,” Inslee told me. “It’s not just fried chicken and pork on a stick. These people care a whole bunch, maybe more than ever.” He compared this moment to the political awakening for many Americans during the Vietnam War. His fellow candidates are acting alarmed enough, Inslee said, but, “it’s more important that the voters be alarmed than the politicians, and the voters are very, very alarmed, appropriately so.”

Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio walked around the fair with his wife and son, introducing the boy to other candidates and feeding him fair food. Ryan had just arrived in Iowa after days of speaking out after the Dayton shooting, some 200 miles from his district. He was part of a caravan protesting for background checks that had driven through Ohio and into Louisville, Kentucky, to call on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to order the Senate back into session for legislation.

“There’s a general sense of insecurity, and yes, it’s guns, but it’s also health care, and it’s also the economy,” Ryan told me, carrying his son on his shoulders. But that doesn’t change the campaigning that happens? I asked. No, Ryan said, “Then they win.”

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