Hillary Clinton did her homework before campaigning here Saturday, opening her stump speech with an ode to DeWitt Clinton, the former New York governor who championed the Erie Canal and became the town’s namesake.
“He was a leader who set big goals, and then he worked,” Clinton said in a brightly lit school auditorium. “He did the politics. He did all that was necessary to clear the way to make it happen.”
A few miles away in the same town, Bernie Sanders criticized the idea of elite leadership. Speaking in the basement of a Masonic lodge, he insisted that true change can only come from the masses.
“It’s not a few people on top coming up with clever ideas,” Sanders said.
With a little more than a week until the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses in what has become a tightly locked race, both Democratic candidates were in the same liberal corner of the state outlining their competing visions. Their contrasting appearances underscored the choice before Iowa’s Democratic caucusgoers: Clinton, the pragmatic achiever who promises to expand on President Obama’s record, or Sanders, the thundering voice for the working class who pledges to wrest power from the nation’s wealthy.
Clinton, the former secretary of State, spoke with the poise of a practiced politician, walking before the audience with a wireless microphone. She made sure to thank local organizers, praise researchers at Iowa universities and blast the state’s Republican governor.
She repeatedly emphasized the progress made under Obama, particularly when it came to healthcare.
“We have 90% coverage. We have 10% to go,” she said. Clinton added, “I want to build on what we’ve already achieved.”
She repeated her pledge to tackle the rising cost of prescriptions and promised she was “going after” drug companies.
After her speech, Secret Service agents shadowed her along the rope line as she shook hands and posed for pictures with supporters.
Clinton has criticized Sanders as unrealistic when it comes to healthcare, saying his plan to expand federal coverage to every American is too expensive and politically unrealistic. It’s a message that has resonated among supporters who fear renewing the contentious battles over Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act.
“None of us say it’s perfect, but I’d hate for it to go backward,” said Jacque Willits, 66, a retired teacher who lives in Camanche, outside Clinton. “I’m afraid it would happen with anyone other than her.”
Other members of the crowd pointed to Clinton’s experience, particularly on foreign policy.
“She’s Madame Secretary,” said Susan Kowzic, a 67-year-old retired machine operator from Clinton. “She’s been around the world.”
Those arguments were futile at the Sanders rally nearby, where Clinton was considered the establishment candidate of half-measures.
“What our campaign is about is thinking big, not small,” said Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont.
He spoke from behind a podium in a raspy voice, sometimes pausing to clear his throat. Instead of talking about local issues or history, Sanders launched into a recitation of his poll numbers. Each survey he cited showed him doing even better than Clinton against a Republican opponent like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, helping to rebuff the idea that he’s not viable in a general election.
While a Clinton speech is filled with applause lines, a Sanders rally includes a call-and-response routine.
“Are you ready for a radical idea?” he asked at one point.
“Yeah!” the crowd shouted.
Sanders continued, to wild applause, “How about creating an economy that works for you, and not just the wealthy in this country?”
The straightforward message about inequality has resonated among his supporters. Even though Clinton hits some of the same notes, they simply don’t buy it from her.
“I don’t know that she is as genuine as Bernie is,” said Al Christiansen, 62, who retired from a plastics factory. “I believe it’s more political talk.”
Members of the crowd viewed Sanders as sincere and Clinton as removed from their challenges.
“With her lifestyle, I feel she’s not as in touch with the middle class,” said Stacy Rickerl, a 40-year-old pharmacy technician.