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Big stakes for 2016 Democrats as they meet together for first time

For the first time, all five Democratic presidential candidates will gather together in one place.

For the first time, the entire 2016 Democratic presidential field will gather together in one place Friday night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All five candidates, from prohibitive frontrunner Hillary Clinton to self-funding longshot Lincoln Chafee, will make their pitches at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner.

It will be first chance for committed activists in the key presidential state to consider their options. And it will also be the first chance for candidates themselves to size each other up, since they’re likely to meet backstage and are expected to stick around and watch the other speeches. Candidates will not debate each other, but instead give back-to-back remarks.

Tickets are sold out and the stakes are high, though each candidate will have a different to-do list going in to Friday’s dinner. 

Clinton, whose strength belies questions about her supporters’ enthusiasm, wants to demonstrate that she can captivate the Iowa grassroots and capture widespread support from the party. 

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Iowa derailed Clinton’s presidential ambitions in 2008, and it’s the place rivals think she is vulnerable again, though polls show she remains very strong. Ahead of the dinner Friday morning, her campaign took the rare step of announcing two big endorsements, from Iowa’s attorney general and treasurer. 

Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has emerged as Clinton’s top rival, want to show that he’s more than just a passing fad with a low ceiling of support, as rivals have contended. Sanders will need to pull support from beyond his traditional base of educated liberals if he hopes to the win the Democratic nomination.

Friday night, that means appealing winning over stalwart party activists, who have dedicated years of their life to the Democratic Party and may not take kindly to an independent who has criticized the party and done less than most to help its candidates get elected.

But perhaps no one has more on the line than former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is going all-in on Iowa, even though his candidacy remains mired in the single digit in polls.

O’Malley has positioned himself as more progressive than Clinton, more electable than Sanders, and with more executive experience than anyone in the race. So far, voters haven’t responded and he remains largely unknown, but he’ll try to lay the groundwork for a turnaround Friday night. 

Rounding out the field is former Sen. Jim Webb, who is more conservative than the rest of the field and ha broken with President Obama and his party on everything from the Iran nuclear deal to the Confederate flag. 

Webb’s first Iowa director quit not long ago, and he has to hope his idiosyncratic message resonates with some party activists if he hopes to be seen as a serious contender.

That imperative is even truer for former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who announced his long shot presidential bid by calling for a transition to the metric system. Chafee has so far funded his campaign with his personal wealth, raising only $29,000 from contributors since announcing in June.

He’s yet to identify a real constituency or rationale for running, so will be looking to find supporters Friday. Like Sanders, Chafee may face questions from the party faithful since he only became a Democrat in 2013.

The event also underscores the dramatic difference between the Republican and Democratic sides of 2016. While the GOP has had numerous so-called cattle calls, where candidates give back-to-back speeches, the Democratic race has been off to a much slower start with a much smaller field.