DES MOINES — The Iowa Democratic Party’s rowdy fall fundraising dinner has a storied spot on the presidential campaign calendar.
The event, which took place here Friday night, marks the moment when the race turns into its final stretch before voting actually begins, and the dinner can be counted on to draw the single biggest Democratic gathering outside the party’s national convention.
The presidential candidates deliver speeches in which they reach for the themes that will inspire and energize. In the days around the dinner, armies of their supporters turn downtown Des Moines into a political carnival showcasing the campaigns’ organizing abilities and financial strength.
Back in 1999 and 2003, the dinner was where Al Gore and then John Kerry delivered a foretaste of how they would beat back their insurgent opponents. Most memorable of all was the dinner in 2007, where Barack Obama began to make people believe the seemingly preposterous proposition that an African American freshman senator with an exotic name might actually have a chance against a Clinton.
Friday night’s Liberty and Justice Celebration at the Wells Fargo Arena drew an estimated 13,000 people. There were supposed to have been 14 contenders on the program, but former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the contest just hours before he was supposed to speak — stunning his backers, of whom hundreds had flown in from around the country and spent the day in a near-freezing drizzle putting up signs and preparing for what they hoped would be a triumphant evening.
With just more than 90 days left before the caucuses, what happened inside the hall may have told more about how the race is shaping up than anything you have seen in the polls.
For starters, it looks like a contest that has been pretty polite thus far is about to become much more contentious. Another thing it suggested is that former vice president Joe Biden is in deeper trouble than his relatively durable national numbers suggest.
Biden, who brought along a relatively modest and dutiful cheering section, is losing ground in Iowa. Political veterans here say they will not be surprised if he comes in third or even fourth at the Feb. 3 caucuses.
With so much at stake, it was surprising to see him offer little more than a warmed-over version of his standard stump speech. Biden seemed almost a bystander to the real action of the evening, which was a confrontation between two candidates who have been on the rise in Iowa — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Neither of the two mentioned the other by name, but they didn’t have to as they offered sharply contrasting visions of what it is going to take to win. The 37-year-old mayor spoke of building a coalition of “progressives, moderates and Republicans of conscience who are ready for a change.”
“We will fight when we must fight,” Buttigieg declared, “but I will never allow us to get so wrapped up in the fighting that we start to think fighting is the point. The point is what lies on the other side of the fight.”
Warren, who has generally avoided attacking other Democratic candidates, was ready with a dismissive retort about those who would run “a consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone.”
“Look, anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we’re already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight,” she said. “Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight, is not going to win that fight.”
There is still time and room in the race for other candidates to stake enough ground to make a reasonable showing here, especially if Biden stumbles badly between now and caucus day.
One to keep an eye on is Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She has built an organization and a following more impressive than her standing thus far in the polls would indicate, and her Midwestern manner is one that is likely to wear well with Iowans over the coming months. Though she spoke late in the evening, she got an enthusiastic response for her more moderate message: “I will have plans that I can pay for and deadlines that I can meet because I am grounded in reality.”
But as the preseason comes to an end, the choices are becoming clearer for Democrats. The battle within the party has been engaged, and it begins in Iowa.