Davenport, Iowa (CNN)Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti caught heat in his home state last week when he suggested Iowa was a lot like California. But he never strayed from that message during his weekend visit to this state, with one prominent Democrat noting that the potential 2020 contender has already got some "Obama buzz."
LA and Iowa have 'a ton in common,' LA's mayor Garcetti tells Iowa voters
"Iowa and Los Angeles have a ton in common, not just because we have the U.S.S. Iowa battleship in our port," Garcetti said during a visit to Cooney's Tavern in Beaverdale Saturday, where he noted that LA's neighboring city of Long Beach was once known as 'Iowa by the Sea' because so many Iowans settled there.
"We have the same struggles. We have the same hopes right now, and we have the same challenges before us," Garcetti said. "People who are wondering, 'Can I get out from under debt and send my kid to college?' Will I have the opportunity in the future economy to find a place for me in it?' .... People here are sick and tired of Washington, or the state capital, telling us what we should do in our local communities."
At each stop, the LA mayor described Iowa not only as the "geographic heart" of the country, but also "the moral center." As a counterpoint, he delivered an increasingly sharp critique of the effect that the Trump administration's policies are having on poor and middle class voters — on issues from taxes to tariffs.
Garcetti repeatedly highlighted the potential economic harm of President Donald Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum on Midwest farmers. (As a retaliation technique to Trump's tariffs, China has announced tariffs on soybeans, pork and ethanol, which are among Iowa's biggest exports).
Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democrats, said Garcetti's intensive retail campaigning at such an early stage would pay dividends with voters later, because of the potential size and breadth of the 2020 Democratic field.
"I hate to say what I'm about to say, but he's got some of the Obama buzz that we've been hearing about — somebody who is coming out of nowhere, but is dynamic, has a great American story, and has the ability to cross a bunch of different lines within the Democratic Party and with independent voters," Bagniewski said in an interview at Cooney's.
The Polk County chair, who volunteered for Hillary Clinton in both her campaigns and appeared in her 2015 announcement video, noted that one mistake the 2016 Democratic nominee made was not doing more retail stops like Cooney's, where voters could take her measure at a more intimate level.
"The big dinners don't cut it anymore," Bagniewski said.
Garcetti is hardly alone in his early visit to the Hawkeye state. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan have all campaigned in Iowa recently.
California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a native Iowan who is frequently mentioned by Iowa voters as a future presidential candidate, spoke along with Garcetti at the Scott County Democrats' Red, White and Blue Gala on Saturday night.
After touching down from LA Friday afternoon, Garcetti toured a carpenter's union training facility, walked Des Moines' East Village with the city's mayor, and attended the annual gala of One Iowa, a statewide LGBTQ organization.
The Iowa visit completed Garcetti's circuit of early contest states. He visited New Hampshire last summer to campaign and raise money for Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig. He raised money for the South Carolina Democratic Party in February during a multi-day tour there. Over the years, he has campaigned extensively for Barack Obama, Clinton and other candidates in his neighboring state of Nevada. Earlier this year he spoke at a fundraiser for US Senate hopeful Jacky Rosen, who currently represents Nevada's 2nd Congressional District.
Garcetti has committed to raising money for Democrats across the country through his new political action committee, the Democratic Midterm Victory Fund. (The group's first report is not yet public).
On Saturday alone, he covered some 300 miles of Iowa -- getting a taste of the state's wintery spring weather with near-freezing temperatures, hail and high winds.
He began the day with a chorizo breakfast burrito at a bar and restaurant known as Mullets, the law enforcement hangout in Des Moines, where he talked to firefighters who had just finished their overnight shift about the opioid crisis.
He drew an enthusiastic crowd of Democratic activists at Cooney's—an Irish-themed pub that has hosted numerous Democratic presidential candidates. Some of his listeners imbibed a few local Iowa brews during his mid-morning talk beneath strings of green Christmas lights and the bar's Irish flags and street signs.
At Cooney's, Bagniewski presented Garcetti with an "Iowa: The California of the Midwest" T-shirt printed by Raygun, the local Des Moines T-shirt company where Garcetti shopped the day before for his wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland, and his daughter Maya. (After Garcetti's visit, Raygun decided to reissue the T-shirt on its website and sent one over as a gift).
Saturday afternoon, Garcetti made a detour to Waterloo to visit the gravesite of Wakeland's great-grandparents and attempted to door-knock at the first home of her grandparents. (No one was home.)
He made a new friend in the mayor of Altoona, Dean O'Connor, a moderate Republican who told reporters he'd like to see a Republican challenger to Trump in 2020 because nothing is getting done in Washington as a result of all the distractions.
Garcetti picked up on that theme at his final stop in Davenport at the Scott County Democrats' dinner Saturday night in his rallying cry to party members for 2018. He urged fellow activists to engage voters by convincing them that the current leadership of the GOP is defining the Republican Party by the politics of division and what "they can take away" from average Americans.
"Washington isn't even talking, and they are certainly not listening," Garcetti said. "They are tweeting and trumpeting disinformation, discrimination, denigration and division. They are trying to pit us against each other instead of bring us together."
The Democratic Party needs to reframe its image, the mayor said, "and remind people that we are the party of decency, the party of strength and the party of action."