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What the Iowa caucuses could mean for Democratic presidential candidates

By James Oliphant

Five Democratic candidates are considered to have viable shots at winning or placing highly in the Iowa caucuses on Monday, the first nominating contest of the 2020 presidential election.

Iowa offers only a small number of delegates, but the predominately white, rural state historically is where candidacies take off – or sometimes founder.

Since 1996, every Democrat who has won the caucuses has gone to secure the party’s nomination.

Get the latest from the Iowa caucuses: https://www.reuters.com/live-events/iowa-caucuses-3-id2920959

Here is a look at the stakes for each top candidate vying to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in November:

JOE BIDEN

For months, Biden’s campaign staff has been telling reporters the former vice president does not need to win Iowa to demonstrate his viability as a top-tier candidate. Biden’s true strength will be come in later voting states with large African-American and Latino populations such as Nevada and South Carolina, the campaign has argued.

That may be true, but there is a hitch.

Biden, more than any other candidate, has tried to project an air of inevitability around him becoming the Democratic nominee. Anything lower than a second-place finish in Iowa will allow doubts about his ability to go the distance to return.

If he cannot win outright, a clustered result with no clear champion might be the best outcome.

BERNIE SANDERS

A win for the U.S. senator from Vermont would cap a startling political comeback.

Last fall, it appeared fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren would become the vanguard for the progressive vote as she seemed to surge in polls. But Warren’s push for “electability” raised doubts among some of the left about whether she was fully committed to their cause, and Sanders lately has shown signs of consolidating the liberal support.

A victory in the caucuses would be a testament to Sanders’ expansive volunteer network and serve as a warning to rivals and pundits alike to not underestimate the candidate who won more than 20 states in his 2016 bid.

It would also set him up nicely to prevail in the next nominating contest in New Hampshire on Feb. 11, establishing him as the undisputed front-runner.

ELIZABETH WARREN

No candidate needs a win in Iowa more than Warren. Her organization in the state is widely lauded, but she has faded from the top of polls in Iowa and nationally after peaking last fall.

Without a strong showing in the caucuses, the Massachusetts senator would head into neighboring New Hampshire – another must-win – at a disadvantage. And it would be that much tougher for her to contend she has a viable path to the nomination.

More than anything, though, Iowa is a test for the argument that Warren now makes on the campaign trail: that she is the only candidate who can bring the warring progressive and moderate factions of the party together. At the very least, she needs a top-three finish.

PETE BUTTIGIEG

A win for the former South Bend, Indiana mayor would not necessarily come as a surprise. He has been polling in the top tier of candidates in Iowa for weeks, has a strong organization and has a Midwestern sensibility that jibes well with the local electorate.

But like Warren, the path ahead grows much tougher for him should he not perform well in the caucuses.

Victory in Iowa would boost Buttigieg in another way: He needs to rewrite his narrative. No major candidate has been more dismissed of late by political observers, who are convinced his lack of appeal to minority voters nationally dooms his candidacy. What Buttigieg needs most is a reason for skeptical voters to give him another look – and a win could do that for him.

AMY KLOBUCHAR

For weeks, Klobuchar’s campaign has claimed her support is mushrooming in Iowa, so much so that anything less than a third-place finish now would feel like a defeat.

More than anyone else, the Minnesota senator has banked her prospects on Iowa, visiting every county and positioning herself as the hometown candidate. Widely viewed as the second choice for many caucus-goers, it remains possible that she might draw enough support from candidates such as Biden and Warren to reach the 15% level of viability in the caucuses, perhaps damaging their prospects as a result.

If Klobuchar finishes out of the running, however, her exit from the race could be imminent. And even a win still leaves her as an underdog.

(Reporting by James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

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