Basically, the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner is the Ames Republican Straw Poll minus the straw poll. And _with_ all the major candidates.
It's a fundraiser for the state party -- the biggest of the year. It's a gathering of 9,000 of the party's most committed activists, bused in by campaigns, their tickets paid by campaigns.
The action takes place in the center of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and also on the balcony level.
Each candidate gets about 10 minutes to speak. Their entrances will be graded by the press, as their supporters in the cheap seats will demonstrate wildly when their name is announced and will perform some sort of creative stunt -- immediately unfurling a massive campaign sign, letting go a creative cheer or dance, or holding up sparkling new campaign signs.
Here's predicting that Barack Obama will get the loudest cheers. That's because he's bought a bunch of sections worth of tickets -- by far the most of any candidate. Hillary Clinton has purchased the second most tickets -- the Edwards campaign has the third.
Participants don't have to be Iowans, so campaigns can bus their supporters in from Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas -- wherever. Edwards' and Obamas' campaigns promise that every activist who makes it inside the auditorium will be from Iowa.
Edwards speaks first -- right around 8:30 pm CT.
Hillary Clinton speaks next to last. Then, at about 9:58 pm, Barack Obama speaks. That could be good -- if the previous speeches are perfunctory, he could rouse the crowd... or, since the crowd will have been seated in place for four hours by that point, they might be very tired.
In 2003, a week after he fired his campaign manager, John Kerry kicked off his comeback at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. His campaign unveiled a new campaign slogan: the Real Deal. "Bring 'it on," Kerry said.
The groundwork for his later rise -- he didn't start to go up in the polls until weeks later -- was laid at J-J -- the tone of his speech, the new slogan, the new sense of energy, the rededication to Iowa.