Message and muscle were on display at a boisterous fundraising gathering of roughly 9,000 Iowa Democrats with fewer than eight weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential nomination contest.
The annual Jefferson-Jackson day dinner here takes on extra heft every four years when the Democratic presidential hopefuls take to the stage and preach to the proverbial choir. (The event also took on some extra length as many of the candidates egregiously exceeded the 10-minute speaking limit.)
Each of the Democratic contenders, Clinton aside, sought to distinguish himself from the frontrunner in some fashion and to varying degrees of subtlety.
As for the signs of organizational muscle, the two national frontrunners turned out their troops in full force at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. The Clinton and Obama campaigns each claimed to have roughly 3,000 supporters in the hall -- making up two-thirds of the total crowd.
The Obama troops clearly won the contest for loudest cheers in the hall as they offered some call and response with the "fired up, ready to go" chants that have become the standard finale to the senator's stump speech. (And they were decked out in red T-shirts with "I'm fired up" emblazoned on the front and "He's ready to go" on the back.) The Edwards campaign claimed to have roughly 1,500 supporters in attendance. There was nary an undecided voter to be found.
As Sen. Obama has been doing on the trail with increasing frequency, though in his delicate way, he focused attention on where he differs with Sen. Clinton and clearly electrified his supporters while doing so.
"When I'm this party's nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; or that I support that Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like. And he won't be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether it's OK for America to use torture – because it's never OK. That's why I'm in it," said Obama.
Dominating in the national polls, Sen. Clinton continues to be the main target of her opponents. Without citing her name, John Edwards made clear that the Clinton era of the 1990s did not always provide desired results.
"We need desperately to elect a democrat as the next President of the United States, but it is not enough. It is not enough. Look at what happened in the 1990's when we had a democratic president, a democratic house and a democratic senate but still drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists killed universal health care in the United States of America. It is not enough, it is not enough. We have a responsibility to change this system."
After taking some heat from her opponents over the last 11 days for waffling at the last Democratic debate, Sen. Clinton attempted to address that criticism head on. "Some will say they don't know where I stand. Well, I think you know better than that," she said.
"I stand where I stood for 35 years. I stand with you and your children and for every American who needs a fighter in their corner," she added.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., warned of the potential for another closely divided election, which he has hinted is a more likely eventuality should Clinton emerge the nominee.
"Not a single solitary problem out there that can be solved with a 51% solution," Biden said in an effort to portray himself as a consensus builder.
As he did at the last Democratic debate, Gov. Richardson pleaded with his fellow Democratic contenders to avoid intra-party nastiness. "It is critically important that Democrats not tear each other down," he said.
The Obama campaign owned the theatrics of the event. When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in her role as master of ceremonies, introduced Sen. Clinton, Obama supporters silently waved their O-shaped symbols of hope back and forth welcoming their competition to the stage. Obama's entrance came courtesy of the voice of the Chicago Bulls introducing the candidate onto the stage at which time his supporters were cued to turn on their light sticks which carried the names of each of Iowa's 99 counties.
Despite the attention she received from her Democratic opponents, Sen. Clinton kept most of her focus on the Republicans. The Clinton campaign introduced a new rhetorical flourish with a call and response of their own as the Senator described what she believes to be the failed leadership of the Bush administration and asked her supporters, "What are we going to do?"
"Turn up the heat," was the reply offered up time and again.
In what appeared to be the most rousing speech of the evening, Sen. Obama was sure to revisit his theme of calling for a change in the political climate and again offering a thinly veiled swipe toward his main opponent. "This party -- of Jefferson and Jackson, of Roosevelt and Kennedy -- has made the most difference in people's lives when we've led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction," Obama said to applause.