In Iowa, Hillary Clinton tries to build on her good run with jabs at Republicans

Former President Clinton speaks during a rally for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, before the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines.

Former President Clinton speaks during a rally for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, before the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines.

(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Saturday that returning the White House to a Republican would jeopardize the nation’s economic recovery under President Obama, as she tried to build on her campaign’s recent momentum while her Democratic rivals stepped up their criticisms.

“We need to defend the progress we’ve made and build on it until the recovery is secure,” Clinton said in remarks before 6,600 Iowa Democrats at their annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an event that in election cycles serves as an early barometer of candidates’ appeal to voters and their campaigns’ organizational abilities.

“We cannot afford to go back to the Republicans’ failed policies,” Clinton said, criticizing the GOP field as “reality TV with a cast of characters that don’t care about reality.”


But as Clinton comes off arguably the best stretch of her campaign, the gathering of party activists here offered reminders of the challenges that remain, particularly from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and his army of grass-roots supporters.

Sanders drew implicit contrasts with Clinton by highlighting his record of consistency on issues important to the Democratic stalwarts who dominate the state’s caucuses, including trade, climate change and gay rights. He also highlighted his vote against the 2002 Iraq war authorization, recalling the issue that Obama seized on before his upset victory over Clinton in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

“When I came to that fork in the road, I took the right road, even though it was not the popular road at the time,” Sanders said, repeating a theme of his speech.

A third Democratic candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, praised his rivals at first but seemed to target both. While they share the same values, O’Malley said, “not all of us actually have a record of getting things done.”

“A weather vane shifts its position every time the winds change. Effective leaders do not,” he said in an implicit swipe at Clinton that also included a generational argument. “We cannot move beyond today’s gridlocked politics by returning to the divisions of our past.”

The focus of the night was largely on Clinton, and her campaign sought to use the event as a showcase for the sort of granular political organizing efforts — both here and throughout the country — that the Obama campaign mastered eight years ago.

As if to highlight that fact, the mastermind of that Obama effort announced he was backing Clinton on Saturday. The organizing that David Plouffe led as Obama’s 2008 campaign manager was an integral part of how Obama wrested the nomination away from Clinton, the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination that year.

Long before Saturday’s dinner, hundreds of campaign volunteers who will take leadership roles across Iowa spent the day at the campaign’s state headquarters for a “boot camp,” which included a pep talk from campaign manager Robby Mook.

Clinton’s team also recognized the importance of even more symbolic efforts at the dinner, which has become something of a political carnival leading up to the caucuses. Volunteers prepped for the all-important sign war that takes place around and inside Hy-Vee Hall, where the dinner is served.

To ensure the events would draw a substantial number of supporters, the campaign brought in two of its biggest weapons — pop star Katy Perry and former President Clinton — for a pre-dinner rally. Perry sang “Roar” — Clinton’s campaign anthem — in a custom dress inspired by Clinton’s campaign logo. Bill Clinton highlighted the ways in which his wife performed under pressure in recent weeks, particularly in her marathon appearance Thursday before the House Benghazi committee.

“That’s the person I know and the person America got to see again without all those barnacles, in the debate and in those 11 hours of testimony,” he said.

Clinton’s team had hoped at least to guard against the same kind of breakout performance from Sanders that Obama had eight years ago at the event. But the Sanders contingent of supporters inside the hall, though smaller than Clinton’s, brought its own rehearsed chants and a passion for the candidate that set a high bar for those who went on after him.

In his remarks Sanders said the grass-roots enthusiasm behind his surprising campaign was the same kind of movement that boosted Obama.

“Iowa, I think we’re going to prove the pundits wrong again. I believe we are going to make history one more time,” he said.

Veterans of Obama’s team said the importance of Saturday’s dinner couldn’t be overstated.

“The J-J was the moment everything clicked for us in Iowa,” said Tommy Vietor, a member of the Obama 2008 team in Iowa. “But that was the result of a lot of work.”

Preparations for the dinner that year began months in advance as an almost guerrilla-style campaign -- with diagrams of the arena to ensure the campaign had the best strategic positions to put up signs, and work to garner a huge turnout of supporters and choreograph their cheers.

“When you describe it, it sounds like this silly thing that campaigns do. But actually it makes you think 400 moves ahead,” he said. “It got the people involved -- our organizers -- so hyped for the event that it was like you were playing in a political Super Bowl.”

In the end, Vietor said, the performance showed that the Obama effort “was for real.”

Another Obama veteran, Mitch Stewart, recalled on Twitter how a colleague said to him after: “I think we just won the caucuses.” For Stewart, the observation prompted a nervous bout of nausea.

Democrats on hand, even those at least tentatively aligned with one candidate, said the forum was important for them beyond shaping their preference for the caucuses.

“I’m looking at all the options. And I’m also looking at who are potentials for vice president,” said Kate McNally, a Des Moines resident in the smaller O’Malley bleacher section.

For more campaign coverage, follow @mikememoli.


As Paul Ryan makes his bid for speaker official, he faces a risky road ahead

Even with rising debt and sinking polls, candidates find dropping out is hard to do

Danny DeVito, Reese Witherspoon, Jerry Bruckheimer: You might be surprised who Hollywood backs for president