Democrats focus on unity as tensions from 2016 linger

NORTH LIBERTY, IOWA (AP) — Democratic presidential candidates promised voters in Iowa on Saturday they would unify the party to take on United States (US) President Donald Trump even as they kept up their criticism of each other and navigated the lingering divides from the 2016 campaign.

“I’m confident Americans, Republican voters, Democratic voters and independent voters want us to come together,” former US vice president Joe Biden said in North Liberty.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes to make progress in the areas that matter most.” About 20 miles away in Cedar Rapids, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren updated her stump speech to include a more explicit call for unity.

“We’re down to the final strokes here,” she said. “But we understand that, we will and we must come together as a party to beat US President Donald Trump and I’ve got a plan for that.” And Bernie Sanders insisted he would back the ultimate Democratic nominee even if it’s not him. “Let me say this so there’s no misunderstanding,” the Vermont senator said in Indianola.

“If we do not win, we will support the winner and I know that every other candidate will do the same.” On the eve of Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the unity pledges marked an early — and urgent — effort to avoid the divides that some Democrats say helped Trump win the presidency in 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign stop at the South Slope Community Centre. PHOTO: AP

After a year of campaigning, most polls show a tight race between Biden, Warren, Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Those candidates, along with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and businessman Andrew Yang, crisscrossed Iowa on Saturday seeking a breakout victory that would propel them deeper into the contests that will decide the Democratic nomination.

Most surveys show the top four candidates jumbled at the top. And on Saturday, the final Des Moines Register poll — traditionally seen as the gold standard survey of the caucus electorate — was pulled from publication after questions about its methodology.

The newspaper said Buttigieg may have been left off the list of candidates presented to a caucus-goer in at least one call.

To break out of the pack, the candidates have focussed on a wide variety of policy issues ranging from free college tuition to the role of government in health care, criminal justice reform, gun control and solutions to climate change.

But the biggest issue on the minds of many voters is landing on a candidate who can beat Trump.

Anxiety over the party’s ability to unify grew over the past two weeks after Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ 2016 primary rival, twice criticised the senator for not doing enough to bring Democrats together after their bruising battle.

The divide was on display Friday when Michigan District Representative Rashida Tlaib appeared at a Sanders event in Iowa and booed at the mention of Clinton. She later issued a statement saying she “allowed my disappointment with Secretary Clinton’s latest comments about Senator Sanders and his supporters get the best of me” and would “strive to come from a place of love and not react in the same way of those who are against what we are building in this country”.

Sanders’ Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir retweeted her statement and said, “We love your passion and conviction. Don’t change.” Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill called that comment “unbelievable”.