At Iowa’s Wing Ding Dinner, Democrats Assail G.O.P. on Gun Control

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — The Democratic presidential candidates paused here for a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, underscoring how the turbulent events of the past week have refocused the primary contest.

The brief lull in the primary campaign came as nearly the entire field descended on Northern Iowa on Friday night for the Wing Ding dinner, an annual event that has long served as an early testing ground for Democratic presidential aspirants.

In speech after speech, the candidates focused their fire on assailing President Trump and Republicans for their lack of action on gun control and abetting white supremacy — rather than focusing their fire on each other.

Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio recounted his recent trip to Kentucky, where he led protests of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, for not acting on gun control legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

“We need gun reform in America and we need it now,” Mr. Ryan said, bringing the crowd to their feet. “People are dying on the streets of this country, getting killed by weapons that were made for battlefields not neighborhoods like Dayton, Ohio.”

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey used his five-minute slot to deliver a somber sermon on the “moral moment” faced by the country.

“This is a week where I will not let the slaughter of our fellow citizens just disappear within the next media cycle,” he said.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who received rapturous applause from the crowd, focused his remarks on turning the page from the Trump presidency, describing white nationalism as a “national security threat.”

“We’ve got to win not just the era but the future of this country,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “We are going to fix things in this country, we are going to do it together.”

The party fund-raiser, held at Clear Lake’s iconic Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played his final rock show before dying in a plane crash in a nearby cornfield, has become an essential stop for Democratic activists and candidates to size up the field.

[Here’s the latest data on who’s leading the race to be the Democratic nominee.]

Barack Obama spoke here in 2007 before his presidential campaign caught fire. And last year, when Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer, was weighing a presidential bid, he wowed the crowd and presaged the 2020 campaign by urging Democrats to fight as dirty as Mr. Trump does.

(Mr. Avenatti abandoned his presidential hopes in December. Four months later he was charged in a scheme to extort Nike, the shoe manufacturer.)

This year, Mr. Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren and J.D. Scholten, who is beginning a second campaign against Representative Steve King of Iowa, won the strongest reception from the audience.

Jerry Dietz, a 79-year-old farmer, said he arrived at the event backing Senator Amy Klobuchar but left most impressed by Mr. Buttigieg, though he worried the country wasn’t ready to elect the first gay president.

“I have relatives who wouldn’t vote for him,” he said.

For many Democrats, the back-to-back mass shootings last weekend offered another reminder of their most deeply-held desire: Ousting Mr. Trump.

Many in the Democratic primary field have heightened their denunciations of Mr. Trump, labeling him a racist and a white supremacist.

As he left the White House for a vacation at his New Jersey golf club on Friday night, Mr. Trump called for lawmakers to pass “meaningful” background checks, a sign that the president finds himself under new political pressure.

Even so, there were no major signals on Friday from the N.R.A., the White House or Capitol Hill that action on the politically fraught issue was closer to compromise or resolution.

Setting himself apart from his rivals, former Representative Beto O’Rourke stayed home in El Paso to attend memorials and visit with shooting victims in his mourning hometown.

“I’m here to make sure that at this moment we do not allow ourselves to be defined by this act of terror,” he said, by way of a video message, “but instead by the way this community overcomes this attack.”

Outside, young boosters for a half-dozen campaigns chanted and screamed at each other. Someone played “Come on Eileen” for no discernible reason. And former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. slow jogged outside to greet his supporters.

The speeches at the Wing Ding dinner surpassed the two-hour mark, with 22 candidates each delivering their pitch in back-to-back-to-back five-minute increments to a sweaty room of Democratic activists. Several opened their comments with cracks about the size of the field, a reality that’s begun to worry party officials and voters.

Of course, as Mr. Holly once crooned, everyday the caucuses are “a-getting closer” and the race is “a-getting faster.” The Iowa blitz this weekend signifies the unofficial start of the fall campaign season, a time when the field is likely to narrow as candidates fail to qualify for debates and start hemorrhaging campaign cash.

[Andrew Yang became the 9th Democrat to qualify for the next debate.]

The dinner comes as the field battles to overtake Mr. Biden, who’s commanded a steady lead in the race despite a series of gaffes. On Thursday evening, Mr. Biden raised eyebrows during a speech in Iowa when he said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.

A new survey in the state shows Ms. Warren gaining ground and Senator Bernie Sanders sliding. Mr. Sanders’s near win in the caucuses three years ago is what fueled his insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner contributed reporting from Clear Lake.

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