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Democrats' Big Day In Iowa


One mainstay of presidential campaigns is the cattle calls, these big events that feature speeches from the candidates one right after another. And there is one tonight in Iowa. It's the mother of them all. It is called the Liberty and Justice Celebration, and it's known for its make-or-break moments. Fourteen Democrats are going to take the stage in Des Moines. With three months until the Iowa caucuses, the candidates are all looking for a big breakout moment. Iowa Public Radio has a podcast called Caucus Land. And here are the co-hosts, Clay Masters and Kate Payne.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Iowa's Liberty and Justice Celebration is a fundraiser. But unlike any other cattle calls, it's also a spectacle.


KATY PERRY: Make some noise if you roar for Hillary.

MASTERS: That's Katy Perry rallying Hillary Clinton supporters four years ago.


PERRY: (Singing) And you're going to hear me roar.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: For decades, it's been a chance for candidates to show off. The event used to be called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, but it's been renamed as the Democratic Party has shifted.

MASTERS: Staffers race each other to hang the most campaign signs in the arena. The pre-dinner rallies spill into the streets. John Legend performed for Barack Obama in 2007. This year, entrepreneur Andrew Yang has booked Weezer.

PAYNE: Once the program begins, candidates give big, fiery speeches in an arena filled with thousands of Democrats. In 1999, Al Gore challenged his main opponent Bill Bradley to weekly debates.


AL GORE: What about it, Bill?


GORE: If the answer is yes, stand up and wave your hand.

PAYNE: If candidates pull it off, they can ride that energy all the way to caucus night. University of Northern Iowa political science professor Donna Hoffman says campaigns understand they need to give the performance of their careers.

DONNA HOFFMAN: This is a good test for a campaign in terms of their own organization but also in terms of where they stand with their most fervent supporters, the activists of the Democratic Party in the state.

MASTERS: But perhaps the most pivotal performance came in 2007.


BARACK OBAMA: How's it going, Iowa? Oh, are you fired up? Are you ready to go?

PAYNE: That year, then-Senator Barack Obama made this event about so much more than the speech.




PAYNE: Obama and his wife Michelle danced with a drum line in the streets of downtown Des Moines as supporters chanted and marched into the arena.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Chanting) Obama, '08. Obama, '08.

MASTERS: That night, six candidates gave speeches. But Obama was facing off against the apparent frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. At that point in the race, Clinton had a commanding lead over Obama. And she was focused on the general election.


HILLARY CLINTON: America is done with the Republicans and their failed policies and their refusal to give America back the future that we deserve.

PAYNE: Obama spoke last that night. And when he walked out onto the stage, it was the culmination of months of organizing across the state.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And now, from our neighboring state of Illinois, a 6-foot-2 force for change, Senator Barack Obama.

PAYNE: That night, he gave a speech that is still seen as one of the defining moments of his career.


OBAMA: I don't want to pit red America against blue America. I want to be the president of the United States of America.


MASTERS: Obama went on to win the Iowa caucus and the presidency. Iowa Democratic consultant Jeff Link was in the crowd that night. He says it was clear that Obama understood the political moment.

JEFF LINK: That evening flipped the script on the rest of that caucus. And I think the Clinton campaign sort of stalled out from that moment forward. And Obama left the room with a ton of energy, and that momentum really carried through caucus night.

MASTERS: Obama showed he had the organization to make it to the White House.

PAYNE: That's what's at stake this year too. UNI's Donna Hoffman says it's do-or-die for the mid and lower-tier candidates. And she says former Vice President Joe Biden has the most to lose.

HOFFMAN: He's going to want to give the speech of his life if he's going to continue to be in that top-tier in the state. But the same is true of Sanders. The same is true of Warren. The same is true of Buttigieg. And so the pressure is really on those top-tier candidates in particular.

PAYNE: In three months, Iowans will head into the cold to meet with their neighbors in community centers and high school gyms to caucus.

MASTERS: And tonight, these current campaigns are hoping to show off an operation that can change the course of political history.

PAYNE: For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne.

MASTERS: And I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.
Kate Payne is an Iowa City-based reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Before she came to the Hawkeye State she was a reporter and fill-in host for WFSU, the NPR member station in Tallahassee, Florida. Kate has won awards for her political and feature reporting and her sound editing.