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As first votes near, 2020 Democratic race looks wide open

DUBUQUE, Iowa (Reuters) - With just weeks to go before Iowans kick off the Democratic presidential nominating contest on Feb. 3, the only certainty about the race seems to be its uncertainty.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders answers a question from a supporter as he speaks during a town hall in Anamosa, Iowa, U.S., January 3, 2020. REUTERS/Brenna Norman/File Photo

At least four contenders - former vice president Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana are seen as having a shot at winning the crucial early nominating state.

All are betting on a win or strong finish in Iowa to propel them toward the nomination to take on Republican President Donald Trump in November 2020.

With a new poll showing a virtual tie among front-runners and many voters still reluctant to commit to one candidate, all have reason to hope. After record fundraisings in the fourth quarter for several candidates, they have also money to spend.

A CBS News/YouGov poll released on Sunday showed a three-way tie between Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg, at 23% with Warren and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar trailing behind.

Adding to the feeling of uncertainty in Iowa is the prospect that the U.S. senators in the race could be recalled to Washington soon for Trump’s impeachment trial, which could last weeks.

The specter of greater conflict with Iran has also thrust national security into the forefront of the Democratic race, adding to the unsettled nature of the contest.

With a fresh urgency, Biden, Sanders and Warren all campaigned along the Mississippi River towns in eastern Iowa during the weekend, while Klobuchar was not far away.

Of the top-tier contenders, only Buttigieg was out of the state, stumping instead in New Hampshire, another early voting state.

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“There are still a surprising amount of people who are undecided,” said Steven Drahozal, chairman of the Dubuque County Democratic Party.

After a Sanders event in Muscatine, Mark Butterworth, 73, said that while he supported Sanders in 2016, he was this time also considering the more moderate Buttigieg because of his concerns over Sanders’ push for universal healthcare that would all but eliminate private health insurance.

“I don’t see either one of them as a bad candidate at all,” said Butterworth, a small business owner.

At a Biden event in Dubuque, Ron Vonnahne, 70, of Asbury, said he, too, had not decided. He praised Buttigieg, but concerns over whether the 37-year-old could beat Trump had him looking at Biden.

Iowa is particularly critical to lesser-known candidates Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren, who need to make a splash and have banked on the state’s overwhelmingly white electorate to give their presidential bids an early jolt.

Biden and Sanders, on the other hand, benefit from being better-known names with more solid and diverse bases of support in later primary states such as Nevada and South Carolina. Either could lose Iowa and stay viable.

Biden has also seized on Trump’s recent actions toward Iran to draw attention to his foreign policy experience.

After winning a high-profile endorsement of Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a first-term congresswoman who campaigned with him over the weekend, Biden’s campaign on Sunday also announced three endorsements from moderate House Democrats in swing states, who all served in the U.S. military.

For the U.S. senators in the field, every day now matters before a possible impeachment trial later in January.

Klobuchar, at one stop, urged attendees to commit to supporting her now.

“This is it. We are like, what, 30 days away? And I know you guys always like to say, ‘You’re in my top three. You’re in my top three.’” she told the crowd.

“Just go for it.”

Reporting by James Oliphant, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Alistair Bell