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On The Road With Elizabeth Warren In Iowa


A town hall meeting or campaign rally can be a place where voters can get a good look at somebody who wants to be president. And Iowa caucusgoers have just over three weeks left to examine the Democratic candidates up close. The top contenders are meeting crowds in gymnasiums and community centers and diners hoping to connect with voters.

NPR's Don Gonyea is in Iowa, where he spent a day with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: A presidential campaign is a reflection of its candidate. And with Elizabeth Warren, the public school teacher she once was and the professor and the policy wonk are all readily on display.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Come on in. Hi I'm Elizabeth Warren. I'm running for president. It's nice to meet you.

GONYEA: Of course, there's not a soul here who doesn't know who Warren is. These are supporters here to volunteer. The meeting place is a small dairy store in Maquoketa, Iowa. On a frigid morning, you can feel the chill as late arrivals open the door to enter.

WARREN: You know, there's always room for a couple more - oh, and more. Come on in. Hi. Come on in.

GONYEA: Warren has been doing events in Iowa for more than a year. Now it's time to turn the organization she's built into one that gets people to the caucuses on February 3. Other candidates may have more money, she notes.

WARREN: The way we're going to win this moment in history is not with TV ads. It's not with talking heads. It's not through the media. It's by getting out and talking to people face to face. We win it through a grassroots movement. We win it by knocking on doors all across Iowa.


WARREN: It's a short speech. Thirty-five-year-old Mike Kean is listening closely. His wife is still undecided, not him.

MIKE KEAN: I've been Warren since the beginning, since she announced her candidacy.

GONYEA: In fact, the roots of his support go back more than a decade. That's when he first saw Warren before she ever ran for elective office on Comedy Central on cable TV. At the time, she was a law professor from Harvard.

KEAN: I grew up and came of age watching "The Daily Show." So when the 2008 financial crisis hit, she was on talking to Jon Stewart all the time about how to fix things and how things had gone wrong. So ever since then, I've had a lot of respect for her.

GONYEA: In one corner near the back of the room, two tables are lined with neat rows of packets and clipboards for volunteers to grab. They include maps of local neighborhoods for canvassing and stacks of fliers with the slogan, Warren has a plan for that in bold red and blue font. Now to the day's next event...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Join me in welcoming Elizabeth Warren to Davenport.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living.

GONYEA: This is an exhibition building at a county fairgrounds in the Mississippi River town of Davenport. Dolly Parton blasts through the loudspeakers. It's an anthem highlighting doing the work and facing all obstacles.


PARTON: (Singing) It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

WARREN: Oh, it's good to be here with all of you.

GONYEA: This event is much larger. About 600 people are here. It's a town-hall-style meeting. And it happens to be Warren's 100th event in Iowa since she entered the race. The audience appears mostly onboard. There are plenty of people still undecided. The crowd also clearly has more women than men. Warren appeals to many progressives within the Democratic Party. Twenty-two-year-old Alex Brown drove hours with a friend to get here from her college in Missouri. Her state's primary isn't until March. Brown likes and admires Warren.

ALEX BROWN: But I kind of want to see as many candidates as I can to make my final decision.

GONYEA: Who else are you thinking about?

BROWN: Bernie.

GONYEA: It's not at all unusual to find voters still torn between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The candidate is cheered when she answers a question about what she's looking for in a running mate.

WARREN: So vice president - this one is easy. I want a partner who's going to believe what I believe and be in the fight all the way with me. That's what I want as a No.1 criterion.


GONYEA: Progressives take that answer as an indication that she won't put a moderate on the ticket just for balance. There are about a dozen questions during the town hall - covering education, health care, school shootings - but none from voters about the killing of Iranian Gen. Soleimani or impeachment. Warren speaks of the need to defeat President Trump and to restore dignity to the office but also stresses that the country was already broken when it elected him. There are long-term challenges that she says need big solutions.

WARREN: But get in the fight because this moment in history will not come back. This is our moment to dream big, fight hard and win.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) What you want, baby, I got it.

GONYEA: That's the cue for Aretha Franklin to sing her anthem of empowerment as a Warren campaign tradition then plays out - the candidate posing for photos with every single person who wants one. A long line forms. Forty-two-year-old vocational counselor Keri Bass says she's here because her 8-year-old daughter Ella insisted.

KERI BASS: What inspires her about Elizabeth is there's an opportunity for a woman to be in the White House, and that's exciting for her. And as a mom, I want her to see that women run for president because that's what we do.

GONYEA: Bass stresses that voting for a woman is not the most important thing for her. But she says it sure would bring some new perspective to the Oval Office. By now, Ella has grown impatient with our conversation, prompting this from mom.

BASS: OK. We'll get in line for the selfies in a minute. OK.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Davenport, Iowa.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) Just a little bit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.