Rahm Emanuel makes debut as Obama surrogate in Iowa

Chicago Mayor

Rahm Emanuel

will argue that

President Obama

has governed based on his principles, not politics, as he steps onto his highest-profile stage as a surrogate for his former boss.

Emanuel will speak to Iowa


at the annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines tonight, charged with restoring enthusiasm among those who launched the former Illinois senator to the

White House

four years ago.

"In the next four years there will be more challenges and more crises that will determine the economic vitality of the middle class and the economic future of this country. Whose character, whose judgment, do you want in that office?" Emanuel will say, according to excerpts of his speech released by the Iowa Democratic Party.

Obama, Emanuel will say, "believes in an America where everyone, from Main Street to Wall Street, does their fair share."

"He believes in an America where we don’t have two rule books, one for those at the top, and another set for everyone else. President Obama believes in the idea that our country prospers when we're all in it together."

Emanuel comes to the dinner, the marquee pre-caucus fundraiser for the state's Democrats, with a new perspective from running a big city in tough economic times. He's recently expressed frustration with Washington inaction and repeatedly faced off with unions that form the backbone of Democratic political activism.

Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, sought to portray the trip as simply a favor to his former boss.

"My first job is here, to the people of the city of Chicago," said Emanuel, fresh from unanimous City Council approval last week of his first budget as mayor. "And the president knows that and his team knows that. The president and his team asked me to do this a long time ago, and I said yes."

Iowa again is a crucial part of Obama’s election strategy. His 2008 caucus victory here propelled him past the conventional wisdom that had

Hillary Rodham Clinton

, now his secretary of State, winning the state and the Democratic nomination.

But Emanuel visits a state that last year saw


take back the governor's office and the state House, narrow the Democrats' control of the state


and recall three state Supreme Court justices who had joined in a unanimous ruling authorizing same-sex marriage.

This year, as the nation's first presidential caucus state, attention in Iowa has focused on Republican candidates bashing Obama in trying to win their party's nomination, possibly giving the GOP a general election advantage in a swing state that the Democrat won with 54% of the vote in 2008.

Across town tonight, a group of GOP candidates will be courting religious conservatives at a gathering organized by the Family Leader.

It is against that political backdrop that Emanuel was tapped as keynote speaker for Iowa's Democrats. His task — to offer a broad defense of Obama's presidency while trying to inspire independent voters who will be crucial in a general election less than a year away.

"I had the good fortune of being the president's chief of staff, watching him up close, watching him exert the leadership that was necessary to stabilize a country that was spinning toward far-worse economic conditions than the ones he inherited if that wasn’t stopped and abated," Emanuel said before the speech. "And I think that's a testament to character and I will address that from the unique role of having been both the chief of staff and now a chief executive."

Emanuel was a "real catch" for Iowa Democrats trying to build enthusiasm without the benefit of a caucus battle, according to David Yepsen, former political columnist for

the Des Moines Register

. Republicans will be able to build upon their fluid presidential fight to assemble the networking at the precinct level for next year’s general election.

Emanuel may boost Democrats because he "is an old face, but also a new face in a new role," said Yepsen, who is director of the

Paul Simon

Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

"Democrats have to look for leaders like this in their next generation," he said. "[Emanuel] has some credibility on the left, but he's had to cut budgets and offend unions. … People are going to look at his [budget] solutions and say,'‘What he's doing? Can this be a model for us?' "

Although Emanuel has repeatedly pooh-poohed the notion of using the mayor's office as a stage to run for president, any prominent politician who comes to Iowa in a campaign year — even if not truly seeking the job — generates a great deal of buzz.

"The Iowans will start that [presidential] chatter," Yepsen said. "And who's in Iowa right now besides the presidential candidates? There's a lot of national media in the state right now and when you have the new mayor of Chicago show up, he'll get a hell of a lot of attention that he normally wouldn't get."

Not to mention that Emanuel knows many Washington political reporters and still regularly offers advice to the man who replaced him in the White House, Bill Daley, brother of former Mayor

Richard Daley


Still, Emanuel sought to describe his Saturday efforts for Obama as a rarity for the upcoming political year.

"I don't plan on doing a lot of it," the mayor said. "Only when they ask and only when it fits in and I feel like I can do it without it affecting my first priority, which is the people of Chicago."

Michael A. Memoli of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.