DES MOINES, Iowa -- It's crunch time in Iowa, and presidential candidates are hitting as many high-profile events as they can ahead of Monday night's caucuses. Bernie Sanders spent Saturday night on stage with the popular rock band Vampire Weekend in front of thousands of cheering hipsters. Hillary Clinton brought out her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on another stage in front of hundreds of supporters.
Martin O'Malley? He stood on a chair in his cramped campaign office. About 100 or so people came to hear him talk. A table in the back offered a spread of hamburgers, store-bought cookies and something simmering in a crockpot. A printed "Wish List" taped to the wall asked supporters for donated items. A couch. Inflatable mattresses (?). Pens. A vacuum cleaner.
The last request on the list was scribbled in by hand: "A victory in Iowa!"
The former Maryland governor isn't where he wanted to be in this race. The final Iowa pre-caucus poll from the Des Moines Register, released Saturday, shows Clinton and Sanders duking it out in the Democratic primary -- Clinton barely leads Sanders, 45 to 42 percent -- and O'Malley way, way below them, at 4 percent. Yet he still got some people to show up to this event tucked away in what looks like a warehouse. Why did they come?
"I'm a huge fan of O'Malley," said Elizabeth Mitchell, who drove to Des Moines with her husband, Gene. But they live in Chicago and only came to Iowa to check out the scene. And they're not voting for O'Malley anyway. They're for Clinton.
"I've supported her since 2008," said Elizabeth. "If it were basically anybody other than her that was running against O'Malley, I'd be supporting him."
"Yeah, O'Malley is our second choice," Gene said. "Hillary is first."
Some people at O'Malley's event were actual supporters. Eric Hill, a veteran who lives in Des Moines, said he likes him because he's "articulate and middle-of-the-road." He also conveyed a palpable disdain for Clinton.
"She just seems like the consummate politician. Over the years, I've seen her do so many things that she's gotten in controversy over. I just, I can't trust her," Eric said. "I don't think she's anywhere near as good as she pretends she's going to be."
He said his second choice for president would be Sanders and that he might even vote for a Republican before he would support Clinton. Not Trump, who is "really a clown," he said, but maybe one of the lower-tier candidates.
For O'Malley's backers, it makes a difference who they would pick as a second candidate. The way the caucuses work, a Democratic candidate has to get 15 percent of a caucus vote to be considered viable. O'Malley won't be able to reach that threshold in many locations, which means his supporters will have to pick another candidate. With Clinton and Sanders in such a tight race, O'Malley's backers could tip the scales in either direction.
Eric's wife, Sylvia, who had been quietly listening to the conversation, said she's voting for Sanders. It's a divided household at the Hill residence.
"If I can't talk her into O'Malley, she might be sleeping on the couch tonight," Eric said.
Sylvia said she likes O'Malley all right, but Sanders stands out because he "speaks what's on his mind. Seriously. He's telling you what he believes to be the truth. That's why I like him."
Even more than Eric, Sylvia can't stand Clinton. She says she lost respect for her after Bill Clinton's dalliances with an intern named Monica Lewinsky.
"When he did the stuff he did, you know, she did not give him his walking papers. That for me was disgusting," said Sylvia. "All she's doing is riding his coattails, trying to, into the White House. If you notice, she dropped the Rodham name. All she uses is Hillary Clinton."
At this point in the night, O'Malley climbed onto a chair and delivered a 10-minute monologue about his vision for America -- he advocated immigration reform, expanding Social Security, debt-free college, solutions to climate change, job creation -- and urged supporters to "hold strong" and spread the word about his campaign. When he was done, people clapped for a long time and murmured about how inspiring O'Malley is.
"Excellent speech," said Adam Schwartz, who lives in Florida but came to Des Moines to help O'Malley's campaign.
"He really sets forth a great progressive agenda," said Schwartz. "He brings youth and energy and is not more of the same. Hillary Clinton, I respect her, but she's yesterday's news."
He said Clinton would still be his second choice for president, though, because he doesn't think Sanders has the electability.
"Are Americans ready to elect a self-proclaimed Sscialist? I don't know," said Schwartz. "Are we paving our way to a Donald Trump presidency? That's what scares me."
That seemed to be a widespread sentiment. Rachel Wilkie-Shapiro, a mother of two who lives in Des Moines, said while Sanders "says a lot of great, wonderful things," she doesn't know if he's equipped to beat the Republican nominee.
"I want a Democrat in the Oval Office," she said. "I think Hillary is better suited to fight whoever she's against."
Wilkie-Shapiro is still holding out for O'Malley, though. She said she's drawn to him because he "has enough specificity and action, but also has a bold, positive vision for where we're going and I really appreciate that."
As the night rolled on, Ben Zakarij stood alone at the back. HuffPost was drawn to him because of his scruffy beard with two long braids dangling out of it. He said his wife does that for him.
"We endorsed O'Malley unanimously three months ago," said Zakarij, who is a board member of STARPAC, a Des Moines-based group focused on war and peace issues. "As the governor of Maryland, he passed the Marriage Equality Act. The Dream Act. He rescinded the death penalty... They're separate issues from each other, but it requires a specific coalition to come together to get those things passed. For me, what's behind a coalition is inclusion."
He said his second choice for president would be Sanders. "It goes back to war and peace issues," he said.
It will all come down to turnout on Monday night, and Zakarij, for one, can't wait to get out there and make the case for O'Malley. He's been involved in caucuses since 1982 and described the Iowa process as the most democratic exercise in modern times.
"For me, it harkens back to ancient Greece. Athens. Small groups of people getting together, electing a spokesperson to take it to the larger council," Zakarij said. "The only difference is if that person violated my issues, I could kill him. You can't do that anymore."
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