MANCHESTER, Iowa—In a final frenzy to inspire supporters to turn out for Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the presidential contenders scrambled to close the deal with the first voters to have a say in the 2016 race for the White House.
The result Sunday was a blur of sometimes conflicting messages. Even as the candidates begged backers to caucus, many hopefuls also tried to lower expectations and look ahead to the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 and later contests.
Republican Donald Trump, who has a slight edge over Ted Cruz in Iowa, predicted that “many” senators “soon” would endorse him rather than their Texas colleague. Trump didn’t name any such senators, and none immediately emerged.
Democratic Hillary Clinton, in a tight race with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, suggested that political point-scoring helped explain the hubbub over the State Department’s announcement Friday that it was withholding some emails on the home server she used while secretary of state.
One development—the weather—was beyond the candidates’ control. A snowfall forecast to start Monday night appeared more likely to hinder the hopefuls in their rush out of Iowa than the voters. Republican John Kasich already has decamped to New Hampshire.
Iowa offers only a small contingent of the delegates who will determine the nominees, but the game of expectations counts for far more than the electoral math in the state. Campaigns worked aggressively to set those expectations in their favor (read: lower them) for Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.
Meantime, a pastor at a church outside Des Moines urged politicians to treat their opponents with love and not attack ads.
With Cruz and his family in the audience, pastor Mike Housholder of Lutheran Church of Hope played two parody attack ads questioning the faith of church members. There is a better way, he said—by speaking the truth with love. He says if you can’t do that, don’t speak.
Too late: The candidates were all over the airwaves Sunday, talking about each other in distinctly unloving ways. Trump, for example, called Cruz a liar at least three times on ABC’s “This Week” for having said in a Des Moines Register ad that Trump supports President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Trump says he wants people’s health care “taken care of” but not with the current program. He did not say how he’d pay for such coverage.
The candidates’ agreed on one thing: It’s all about turnout now.
“People are really enthusiastic, and if people come out to vote, I think you’re going to look at one of the biggest political upsets in the modern history of our country,” Sanders told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Clinton said she had been subjected to “years of scrutiny, and I’m still standing.” On ABC’s “This Week,” she said, “I feel vetted. I feel ready. I feel strong, and I think I’m the best person to be the nominee and to defeat whoever they nominate in November.”
Trump said “I don’t have to win” in Iowa, before adding that he believes he has “a good chance” of a caucus victory.
He said he was confident of taking New Hampshire and many other contests down the road. “One of the reasons that I’ll win and, I think, none of the other guys will win is because I’m going to get states that they’ll never get,” he told CBS’ “Face the Nation,” citing Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, along with strong hopes for New York and Virginia.
Cruz is conceding nothing.
“What we’re seeing is the old Reagan coalition coming together. We’re seeing conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians and Reagan Democrats. And if conservatives come out, we’re going to win tomorrow,” the Texas senator told “Fox News Sunday.”
Cruz directed much of his final advertising against Marco Rubio as the senators’ feud grew even more bitter in the final day.
Cruz took to the airwaves to challenge the conservative credentials of Rubio, the Floridian running third in Iowa, according to the polls.
One ad said of Rubio: “Tax hikes. Amnesty. The Republican Obama.”
Rubio shot back, telling CNN that as voters learn more about Cruz’s record, they will understand that “he’s always looking to take whatever position it takes to win votes or raise money.”
Rubio said Republicans won’t beat Clinton “with someone that will say or do anything to get elected.”
In the last major preference poll before the caucuses, Trump had the support of 28 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, with Cruz at 23 percent and Rubio at 15 percent. The Iowa Poll, published by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, also found Clinton with 45 percent support to Sanders’ 42 percent in the Democratic race. The poll was taken from Tuesday to Friday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.