DES MOINES — The two leading Democratic presidential contenders on Saturday night drew their clearest and sharpest distinctions yet.
At a high-profile Democratic party dinner here, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took a series of veiled, yet unmistakable jabs at former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying that he would govern on principle.
Where Sanders’ address represented a new and more aggressive posture against the frontrunner, Clinton delivered one that was close to her standard stump speech, in which she made the argument that she would be a fighter who would find common ground and deliver results.
Sanders, speaking first, compared his record with hers without ever saying her name.
He pointed out that he had taken a number of liberal positions before they were popular: opposed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which Clinton’s husband signed into law; opposed the Keystone XL pipeline while she equivocated for years; had been against a number of trade agreements that she either supported or came to oppose much later, and voted against the 2003 Iraq invasion, which she voted to approve.
“I listened carefully to what Bush and [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld had to say, and I said, ‘No, they’re not telling the truth’ — and I was right,” Sanders said, referencing former president George W. Bush and his administration. “I came to that fork in the road I took the right road even though it was not popular at the time.”
Clinton’s presentation seemed more geared to a general election audience.
“I’m listening to you. I’m fighting for you. And with your support, I’m going to deliver,” she said.
She devoted much of her speech to policy proposals, particularly her stance in favor of tougher gun regulations — a point of contrast with Sanders, who has a mixed record on the issue.
But she trained most of her criticism on Republicans, and particularly their leading candidate, celebrity billionaire Donald Trump.
“I hear Donald Trump when he says we have to ‘make America great again.’ Well, here’s what I say: America is great, we have to make it fair and just,” Clinton said.
The Iowa Democratic Party gathering — known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, or JJ — has been an important moment on the campaign calendar since 1975. The candidates test their messages before voters who can be expected to show up at Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucuses, which are the first event of the primary season. And their ability to deliver throngs of cheering supporters is seen as an indicator of how well they are building their organizations.
As the hours ticked down before the dinner, Clinton and Sanders held dueling rallies for their exuberant supporters outside the Hy-Vee Hall, where the event was held.
Clinton’s featured a performance by pop megastar Katy Perry, who wore an American flag as a cape from her white sequined gown, and a warm-up speech by former president Bill Clinton, who was making his first appearance of the campaign in Iowa on his wife’s behalf. Her campaign said it drew more than 4,000 people.
Bill Clinton made a joking reference to his wife’s effort to make history as the first woman to be elected president.
“There’s been a lot of talk about breaking the glass ceiling,” the 42nd president said. “I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.”
Overhead, however, a circling plane towed a banner that read: “REVOLUTION STARTS NOW! FEEL THE BERN!”
Across the Des Moines River, supporters of Sanders gathered for a pre-dinner enthusiasm booster of their own. The Sanders event lacked the glitz of Perry and a former president, but it displayed the progressive grass-roots energy that has fueled the Vermont senator’s campaign.
As they waited for the candidate to arrive, Sanders supporters passed a microphone among themselves to offer the many reasons they are backing his candidacy, from reducing income inequality to combating climate change.
The latest poll by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics found that Clinton and Sanders are locked in a relatively tight race in this state. She led him by seven percentage points, 48 percent to 41 percent.
Meanwhile, the third contender whose name was tested, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, barely made a showing in the survey, getting 2 percent.
O’Malley delivered a sharp speech casting himself as a candidate of “actions, not words.” He noted his 15 years in executive office in which he raised the minimum wage, froze college tuition and improved the quality of his state’s schools.
“While all of the candidates here tonight share progressive values, not all of us have a record of actually getting things done,” O’Malley said. “I do.”
The Jefferson Jackson dinner is almost always significant — never more so than eight years ago, when Barack Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, showed up with hordes of young, exuberant supporters and gave a speech that is considered to be one of the best of his career.
Clinton, presumed until then to be the 2008 front-runner, seemed flat by comparison. It was a harbinger of what was ahead for Clinton: She came in third at the Iowa caucuses, and her campaign never really recovered.
Sanders’ speech echoed some of Obama’s lines from eight years ago — lines that had been read as an indictment of Clinton. Both of them promised to govern according to their principles, rather than polls.
But this year, Clinton arrived in Des Moines at a moment of resurgence, after a season of setbacks.
Her poll numbers took a hit over the summer, as she struggled with a controversy over her use of a private e-mail account and server, rather than a government one, while she was secretary of state. Meanwhile, Sanders has tapped into the passions of the Democratic left; he was narrowing the gap, and in some early-state polls, even overtaking Clinton.
But October may be turning out to be a pivotal month for her. She dominated the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, which took place Oct. 13; on Thursday, she endured an 11-hour grilling by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, in which the Republicans who led the panel flailed in their efforts to pin the blame on her for the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Libya that cost the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
In his remarks to her supporters, Bill Clinton said that the debate and her testimony at the hearing gave voters a chance to see his wife unfiltered, “without all the barnacles.”
“The American people in the last six weeks have seen a lot of Hillary, what she’s for, and why she’s running and what kind of president she would be,” he said.
Dan Balz contributed to this report.