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Politics

Democrats to pick 'Trump slayer' as party stiff-arms free trade

Millennial favorite Sanders leads in Iowa as presidential primaries kick off

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign field office in Newton, Iowa, on Feb. 2, the day before the caucuses.   © AP

DES MOINES, U.S. -- Esther Hunt, 74, stood with her husband outside a Bernie Sanders campaign event Sunday in Newton, Iowa, squinting behind her skinny sunglasses as if trying to see things more clearly.

"We're undecided," the retiree said, with the Iowa caucuses just a day away. But "we gotta do something to get the president out of there."

On Monday night, they join potentially hundreds of thousands of Democratic Party caucus-goers throughout the Midwestern state to pick a candidate to square off against U.S. President Donald Trump in the November presidential election.

Hunt, like the state of Iowa, voted for Trump in 2016.

"I did vote for this president, and I'm sorry," Hunt said of the Republican Party standard-bearer.

"I thought he was going to be really good with our economy, for one thing. ... He says that more people have jobs now and everything is so much better. I don't see it in our town," she said.

Asked about Trump's trade war with China, her 82-year-old husband, Jay, chimed in: "If anything, it has only hurt the local economy. This is a farming community, and it means an awful lot to everybody."

Iowa is the second-largest soybean-producing state in the U.S., and a 2018 study by Iowa State University projected that trade disruptions with China could knock up $2 billion off its gross state product of $190 billion.

Yet unlike Trump, who touted his China trade deal at a rally here last Thursday, Democratic candidates still have relatively sparse messaging on trade, both at rallies and in debates.

Among the more vocal is Sanders, who has repeatedly argued that trade deals have destroyed millions of American jobs. The Vermont independent voted repeatedly in Congress against permanently normalizing trade relations with China and has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership "disastrous." He has pledged to run and govern as a Democrat.

Newton, where he made his last appearance in Iowa before caucus day, is a town of roughly 15,000 about half an hour away from Des Moines. Its economy was nearly destroyed years ago after white-goods maker Maytag cut jobs by moving manufacturing to Mexico and other states.

At the Newton event on Sunday, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, told a crowd of about a hundred that "I am from the great state of Ohio, so I understand what rotten trade deals have done to take away jobs from people from my own home state as well."

"But isn't it a beautiful thing that change is coming?" she asked. The crowd cheered.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden talks with volunteers and supporters Feb. 3 at a campaign office in Des Moines, Iowa.   © Reuters

Sanders has been the top-polling Democratic candidate in Iowa for weeks, including in one published Sunday by Emerson College that shows him leading with 28% support against 21% for former Vice President Joe Biden.

A vocal opponent of "unfettered" free trade, the Sanders campaign said last April that as president he would label China a currency manipulator.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is anywhere between second and fourth in various recent Iowa polls, takes a similar approach that she dubs "economic patriotism."

Both Warren and Sanders have said they believe tariffs are an effective trade tool.

The other two leading candidates -- Biden and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana -- represent the moderate lane of the Democratic Party, with both appearing more on the fence about the use of tariffs.

Yet Biden, who worked on and pushed for the TPP in the Obama administration, has criticized how the deal was written, signaling that even party centrists' footing on trade has shifted.

For Democrats, finding the candidate to beat Trump is "probably the No. 1 issue" in this election, said Timothy Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

In all the Democratic caucuses held since 2000, the candidate who won Iowa eventually won the party's nomination. "But it isn't really about predicting necessarily," Hagle said.

"In Iowa, our job is to winnow the field, especially in a year like this where you have a very large Democratic field," he said.

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