Dinner That Can Alter Fortunes

By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 10, 2007

DES MOINES, Nov. 9 -- The calendar shows nearly eight weeks until the Iowa caucuses, but for the Democratic presidential candidates, what happens here this weekend could foreshadow who emerges victorious in what is shaping up as the critical contest in their party's nomination battle.

This is "JJ" weekend in Iowa, and every Democratic activist in the state can recite the history of its significance. "JJ" is short for the party's Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner. In the past two presidential races, the dinner ended up being a turning point in the race for the Democratic nomination.

An estimated 9,000 Democrats will attend the event, which comes at a particularly fluid moment in the Democratic race, when the sense of inevitability that has surrounded Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy has been undercut by what even she concedes was a sub-par performance in a debate Oct. 30 in Philadelphia.

Her leading rivals -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- have intensified their criticism of Clinton (N.Y.), and her campaign has redoubled efforts to prevent any slippage in her support, both here and nationally.

Obama and Edwards were in Des Moines on Friday warming up for Saturday's dinner, each arguing that he would make a better nominee than Clinton.

Clinton will not arrive here until Saturday afternoon, but a huge advance party that included former officials from her husband's administration, volunteers, supporters and young field organizers was laying the groundwork for her appearance. An estimated 40 Clinton staffers showed up Friday morning for the Iowa Democratic Party's logistical briefing for the dinner.

Clinton, Obama and Edwards will share the stage Saturday night with three other Democratic candidates: Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. But much of the focus will be on the intensifying competition among the top three, who are in a very competitive race here, public and private polls show.

"The last two cycles, it has provided the opportunity for a candidate each time to separate himself from the pack," Steve Hildebrand, a senior adviser in the Obama campaign who was Al Gore's Iowa coordinator eight years ago, said of the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.

In 1999, Gore used the dinner to launch a sharp attack against rival Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, who had begun to gather momentum in his bid to block Gore's path to the nomination. Gore accused Bradley of leaving the Senate in 1996, when Democrats were on the defensive. "I never walked away," Gore said. "I decided to stay and fight."

The heavily pro-Gore audience began to chant "stay and fight, stay and fight," and held up placards printed just before the dinner with the same slogan. Bradley was thrown on the defensive and never recovered.

Four years ago, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) began his comeback with a spirited speech at the dinner, unleashing an argument against former Vermont governor Howard Dean that ultimately carried Kerry to victory. "Iowans, don't just send them a message next January; send them a president," he said.

None of the current candidates offered clues to his or her Saturday strategies, but Edwards said it is crucial to keep drawing distinctions with his rivals.

"We are not a monolithic group of Democratic presidential candidates," Edwards said. "We can all just roll through this and hold hands and treat it like there are no differences between us, but there are."

He said his biggest differences are with Clinton, but also said he believes that while he and Obama share the goal of reducing the power of lobbyists in Washington, Obama's conciliatory style is likely to prove ineffective.

Obama, during a taping for Iowa Public Television, said his style makes him ideally suited to attract independents and Republicans in next year's general election in a way that none of his rivals can.

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