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The Iowa caucus is sure to be competitive this year. But what makes caucuses different from primaries? USA TODAY

Trump's campaign against Bernie Sanders and 'Radical Socialist Democrats' is already in full swing. Why hand him a real socialist to run against?

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The short version of the Democratic story so far: RIP Iowa caucuses, long live Bernie and Pete. But that's too simple.

The first part is true, I hope and believe. Even if the Democratic National Committee defies all common sense and allows Iowa to go first again in 2024, with a massively complex caucus system rather than a primary or even a relatively straightforward ranked-choice primary, things will never be the same. 

Look at this year's field. What 2024 candidate in their right mind would bet their future on Iowa? Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg focused their time and money there on the theory that a good showing would catapult them to success in subsequent states. With 70.8% of the results announced as of Wednesday afternoon, his gamble was paying off and hers looked iffy.

But we won't know for sure until all the votes are tallied. And more to the point, the delays, uncertainties and conspiracy theories of this debacle are mitigating the impact of the polling "bounce" that theoretically makes the Iowa investment worthwhile. Next time, I'd expect both the Democratic and Republican fields to ignore the state en masse. It's the only rational decision.

Meltdowns have consequences: Put the Iowa caucuses out of their misery. End all caucuses and rotate the primaries.

And I say that as someone who loves Iowa and the seriousness of its voters. Once I asked a man at a candidate event his occupation, and he said farmer. Then I jokingly asked whether he listened to NPR while riding his tractor. And he said yes. I mean, this state is for real. But its world domination of presidential politics is over. It never should have started.

Don't nominate a socialist of any kind

Now, about Klobuchar and Buttigieg. They along with the third center-lane candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, so far were holding a combined 54.8% of state-level delegates. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the progressive candidates of choice, had 43.6%. To me that is telling, and to some extent encouraging.

I will be less encouraged if Sanders wins Iowa outright, claims a great victory and sails to another one next week in the New Hampshire primary. If that happens, Democrats embarking on an existential general election campaign will be at risk of nominating a 78-year-old "democratic socialist" who recently had a heart attack. 

The campaign against socialism and Sanders is in full swing already. In the shorthand language of attack politics, all Democrats are socialists, and not democratic ones, either. As President Donald Trump tweeted the other night, “This November, we are going to defeat the Radical Socialist Democrats and win the Great State of Iowa in a Historic Landslide!” Now multiply that by an army, and the TV exposure of a State of the Union address in which he vowed, “We will never let socialism destroy American health care!

Why hand Trump a general election opponent who is an actual socialist? Unless, of course, you want to bolster Trump's credibility and undermine Democrats' claims to believe in capitalism? In other words, unless you want to lose.

Which brings us to what must happen now.

How to avoid 2016 Republican fate

On Dec. 16, 2015, I wrote that nine of the Republicans still running for the GOP nomination should drop out. The idea was to create a final four of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Donald Trump. They were all aggressive and seemed to be what conservatives were generally looking for that year. And surely in a narrowed field, one of them would be able to consolidate enough support to stop Trump.

Five Republicans dropped out by the end of 2015. The rest eventually ended their campaigns, but they did it in a trickle throughout February and March. It was not soon enough. And so, to paraphrase Agatha Christie, and then there was Trump.

High Occupancy Voter lane: Fix Trump's mess or blow it up? Democrats should pick Door No. 1 and steer to the center.

The 2020 Democratic field started out so huge that already, the number of Democratic dropouts — 17 — matches the size of the 2016 Republican field we thought was massive at the time. But there are still too many candidates.

I am sorry to say it, but it’s time to name names. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and entrepreneurs Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang should get out.

Bennet is near zero in polls, and it’s a mystery why he’s still in. Gabbard seems to dislike her own party. Patrick should have started running a year earlier. Steyer and Yang are business people making their first runs for office. Does that remind you of anyone? After Trump, please, let's install an actual politician in the top political job in the world.

That leaves six Democrats: Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren. There will be more names on the exit list after New Hampshire on Feb. 11, and contests later this month in Nevada and South Carolina.

They shouldn't wait too long to face reality. We're living through the consequences of believing that something is so preposterous, it will never happen. 

Jill Lawrence is the commentary editor of USA TODAY and author of "The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

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