The critical fight inside Democrats' establishment primary

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. , stepping off his bus as he arrives for a campaign event at The Black Box Theater, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, in Indianola, Iowa. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Within the Democrats' sprawling presidential contest is a smaller, yet critical competition among a handful of candidates jockeying to secure the backing of their party's establishment wing.

The first answers come Monday in the Iowa caucuses when voters begin sorting out the fight between progressive candidates, who are arguing for revolutionary change, and more moderate contenders, who many in the party believe have the better chance to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have been making the case in Iowa that they can assemble a broader coalition of voters in states essential to denying Trump's reelection. Waiting for them on the Super Tuesday primaries in March is Mike Bloomberg, an ideologically similar candidate who is skipping the early contests as he spends hundreds of millions of dollars in larger states.

Their candidacies are rooted in the idea of electability, and a belief that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are proposing ideas that excite core Democratic voters with sweeping, expensive calls for structural change but would fall well short of winning an electoral majority against the Republican incumbent.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a leading establishment figure, believes Biden enters the caucuses as the moderate front-runner, even as McAuliffe acknowledges he has questioned whether the 77-year-old former vice president can sustain his strength.

“I thought hard about running for president. I was concerned Biden was in my space,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “Part of my calculation was, ‘Could he hold up?' And I have to be honest with you, he has held up. We made the right decision.”

“Iowa will be a real determinant,” McAuliffe said. “This field will begin to change.”

The unofficial establishment primary will help determine the identity of the Democratic Party in 2020 as it frames the matchup against Trump. The three top Democrats in Iowa most often considered moderates oppose aggressive progressive priorities such as “Medicare for All,” yet their profiles offer sharply different views of the world.