CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – After a slow start, the Democratic presidential contest officially began here Friday night.
In front of 1,300 activists, all five of the 2016 Democratic presidential candidates gathered for the first time in one place together. While sparks did not fly on stage, supporters of rival candidates faced off outside and tried to outdo each other inside, while staffers clashed online.
The Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Dinner was the first chance Iowa Democrats, the press, and the candidates themselves had a chance to size up the Democratic field in the flesh.
Candidates bought tables to the dinner for their supporters, who cheered loudly when their candidate of choice took the stage and sat quietly when rivals spoke.
The candidates themselves were gracious enough to mostly ignore each other in their speeches. Instead, they each took on different opponents, from Republicans to billionaires.
The stakes were high for each candidate, and each came with a different mission. For frontrunner Hilary Clinton, the message was clear: Trust me to take on Republicans in the general election.
“I’m having a great debate already with Republicans,” she said, before blasting their economic policy. “Trickle down economics has to be one of the worst ideas of the 1980s. It is right up there with New Coke, shoulder pads and big hair.”
She lambasted Republicans for saying they’re not scientists when it comes to climate change. “I’m not a scientist either,” she said. “I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain.”
And she mocked “the new Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump,” as “finally a candidate whose hair gets more attention than mine.”
But she made no mention of the Democratic primary and spoke as if she were running in a general election.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is surging the polls, at least acknowledged his rivals. ”This is a great team. I thank them all,” Sanders said.
If Clinton went after Republicans, Sanders went after billionaires, calling for a “political revolution” to overthrow them.
Sanders got a typically enthusiastic response, and one of his biggest applause lines came when he spoke about race and policing, a recent addition to his longtime stump speech.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had a strong showing, with supported organized by both his campaign and super PAC outside chanting taunts at Clinton supporters.
He started with a gloomy assessment of the economy – “Main street struggles while wall street soars,” he said – and touted his executive record advancing progressive achievements.
“I’m not the only candidate in the Democratic Party with progressive values, but I am the only one with 15 years of executive experience,” the former governor boasted.
O’Malley has bet his entire campaign on Iowa, and the support inside the room likely exceeded many expectations. Still, he remains largely unknown to most Iowans, a fact he underscored by introducing himself at the top of his remarks.
The remaining two candidates, who served as bookends to the event, did little to demonstrate a clear base of support in Iowa. Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who went up first repeated his pitch to essentially outsource American foreign policy to the United Nations.
The final speaker of the night was former Sen. Jim Webb, who faced an exodus of attendees as he took the stage. “I’m here to turn the lights out folks,” he said.
Webb also had plenty of praise for Sanders, saying, “I had the pleasure of serving with him in the Senate,” and “Bernie, you always fire me up.”
Webb, who opposed the Iraq War, also said he would not have authorized the intervention in Libya in 2011.
Meanwhile, outside the event, a couple of dozen Clinton supporters faced off against a similarly sized group of O’Malley fans, who chanted loudly and marched past each other to show their support.
On Twitter, aides for O’Malley and Clinton sniped at each other for the first time.
It’s tame by the standers of the GOP primary, where civil warfare is fought in the open, but things have only just begun.