DES MOINES, Iowa - Sen. Amy Klobuchar stood over the searing heat of a smoking grill to flip pork chops. She sampled cheese curds. She stood in line to gaze upon the famous Iowa State Fair butter cow, in all its creamy yellow majesty.
By the time the senator from Minnesota left the fair Saturday night, she had spent nearly eight hours on the ground, smiling and shaking hands and doing all the things that White House aspirants do when they make their quadrennial pilgrimage to this playground of fried food and presidential politics.
PHOTO GALLERY: See the Democratic candidates make the rounds at the Iowa State Fair in a gallery at the end of this story
"Maybe I haven't had a viral moment," Klobuchar told a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered to hear her speak at the fair's political soapbox. But she invoked another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who had wandered through here as a long shot for the presidency before his campaign caught fire, signaling that she hoped Iowans would help hers do the same.
For Klobuchar and other Democrats stuck near the bottom of the polls in a historically large field, the Iowa State Fair offered one of the brightest spotlights of the election contest so far, outside of the debates. These hopefuls addressed some of the largest crowds of their campaigns at the soapbox and attracted outsize media attention from the nearly 800 reporters and photographers credentialed for this year's fair, far more than in any other year.
When businessman Andrew Yang made his way around the fair Friday, he was trailed by a few dozen photographers, at least five camera crews and about 15 reporters. The crush was not much smaller than the chaotic media contingent that pursued former vice president Joe Biden during his visit the day before, though Yang has the support of only about 2 percent of Democratic voters in Iowa, according to the latest polls. (A quarter say they support Biden.)
Yang has attracted some of the biggest crowds of the campaign but not as much media attention. At the fair, he drank lemonade, nibbled on a corn dog and happily bit into a gigantic turkey leg for the cameras, at one point waving the bone in the air for dramatic effect like the costumed Viking warriors he had once seen at a Renaissance fair.
"This is gooood," he declared.
In a quiet moment behind a food stand, Yang acknowledged that he found the attention a bit surreal. The year before, he had walked through the fairgrounds totally unknown, trying to garner any media coverage he could for his upstart campaign. Now, he was happy to mug for the cameras, insisting that any publicity is good if it raises awareness of his campaign among voters.
"I'll take it," Yang said. "If people want to follow me around and hear what I have to say, to me, this is a good thing."
The fair comes at a crucial time in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Candidates are expecting the field of roughly two dozen presidential contenders to winnow in coming weeks as they stare down stricter qualifications for upcoming debates and a tougher struggle to raise money.
"People are going to start facing a very different reality than they have before," said Sue Dvorsky, a longtime party activist and former Iowa Democratic Party chair who formally endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Saturday. "This is the end of the beginning, the end of the first chapter of this campaign. . . . It's going to get smaller. It has to. We're not going to caucus for 20 people."
The Democratic National Committee has stepped up the entry requirements for next month's primary debate, scheduled for Sept. 12 (and possibly Sept. 13) in Houston. To get onstage, candidates must register 2 percent support in four polls and have a minimum of 130,000 donors, with at least 400 donors in 20 states by Aug. 28.
While Klobuchar and Yang have qualified, several candidates who spent the most time walking around the fair this weekend have not, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former U.S. housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
On Friday, Castro walked the fairgrounds with his family, trailed by a large media contingent that captured every little moment - including when the candidate stepped in cow manure while visiting one of the livestock barns. Castro simply walked on.
Some of the Democratic hopefuls toured the midway, a large entourage of reporters in tow. Bullock, dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, rode the giant slide. Castro and his family rode the Tilt-a-Whirl. Hickenlooper, a former brewery owner, hit the beer tent.
After two rather sedate debate performances, Bennet delivered a fiery speech at the soapbox, where he reveled in boos from supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., after he criticized the idea of Medicare-for-all. Bennet followed it up by riding the hang glider with his two daughters, a ride where passengers are suspended and twirled high in the air.
On the ground below, journalists watched as the senator went from laughing to appearing slightly queasy. "He looks like he's going to hurl!" a photographer said.
On Saturday, Gillibrand spent hours at the fair, walking the grounds with her husband and two young sons. Before speaking at the soapbox, where she devoted most of her speech to making the case for her struggling candidacy and asking voters to donate to keep her 2020 aspirations going, she stopped at the fair's "Cast Your Kernel" contest, where fairgoers register support for presidential hopefuls by placing a corn kernel into a jar labeled with the candidate's name.
As a mob of reporters watched and filmed, Gillibrand handed her kernel to her 11-year-old son, Henry, who teased his mother by lingering over the jar for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). "Come on," Gillibrand said. "I deserve a vote." After a few seconds, Gillibrand guided her son's hand to her jar.
"She's pretty good," Henry said. "I'll vote for her."
PHOTOS: DEMS MAKE ROUNDS AT IOWA STATE FAIR
The sheer volume of visiting contenders signaled a new phase of the campaign, ending the get-to-know-you period and beginning a six-month sprint to the Iowa caucuses. Here are some scenes from Iowa: