CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—It had all the makings of a showdown: After months in each other's footsteps on the campaign trail, all five 2016 Democratic presidential contenders were gathered in the same room for the first time Friday night, ready to stand in front of each other and tell a 1,300-strong crowd why they, and not their rivals, should get the party's presidential nod.
But when Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee spoke, there was little rancor to be found. Instead, the candidates took turns touting their own credentials, occasionally praising each other, and ripping into the Republican field.
"You can see that Democrats are united, we are energized, and we are ready to win this election," Clinton said.
Indeed, the fundraiser for the state Democratic Party was remarkably free of intraparty fireworks. The candidates refrained from criticizing each other explicitly. In fact, the only one who even uttered an opponent's name was Webb, whose speech directly followed Sanders—and Webb made several praising references to Sanders.
Some of the others, including Sanders and Chafee, made general references to the other Democrats in attendance without naming any names. Sanders, for example, spoke of "great Democrats who have dedicated their entire lives to public service."
"This is a great team and I thank them all," he said.
Unlike the Republicans, who have gathered at a handful of cattle-call-style events across the country this year—and will appear on stage in Ohio at their first debate in just a few weeks—Democrats have not held similar events.
Instead, the gathering of presidential hopefuls focused their attention on the Republican Party, offering up criticisms of the field and framing the party's philosophy as outdated.
The candidates spoke alphabetically, which meant Chafee was first, followed by Clinton. When she came on stage, supporters began chanting, "Hil-lar-y! Hil-lar-y!" Clinton told some personal stories in her speech, touching on frequently cited anecdotes about becoming a grandmother and her mother's struggles as a young girl. But she saved most of her comments for criticism of the Republican Party.
"I am running for everyone who's ever been knocked down but refused to be knocked out," she said. In closing, she hoped for a country "where a father can tell his daughter you can be anything you want to be, even president of the United States."
Sanders's vocal and enthusiastic supporters, who have been drawing him big crowds and are beginning to form the basis for his campaign's organization here in Iowa, started the chants—"Bernie! Bernie!"—barely seconds after O'Malley walked off the stage. And throughout the speech, in addition to loud cheers, supporters were vocal: Some shouted "Preach!" or "That's right!" after each point he made.
"No president can bring about the changes that we need in this country unless there is a political revolution," Sanders said. He got perhaps his biggest applause line—from people across the room—when he called for the Supreme Court to overturn its now-infamous Citizens United decision.
Clinton took aim at the Republican economic philosophy: "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," Clinton quipped. "I lived through it and there are photographs—and we are not going back to that."
She went after Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by name, criticizing his remark that Americans want to work "longer hours."
"In the past week, Governor Bush scrambled to explain his statement that Americans need to work longer hours. He now says he just wants part-time workers to be able to find full-time jobs," she said. "Well, so do I. There's just one problem: His policies and the policies of all these Republican candidates would make that harder; giving more tax cuts to those at the top won't do anything for part-time workers."
O'Malley lamented what he described as the decline of the Republican Party, including the rhetoric of business mogul Donald Trump.
"They once had leaders and visionaries: Lincoln, Eisenhower," O'Malley said. "Now they create traffic jams and dismiss science."
Of the other Democrats, O'Malley had a strong contingent of supporters in the room and got loud cheers and applause when he appeared on stage. His supporters—both the official campaign and the super PAC—cheered loudly, and for hours, outside the Cedar Rapids Convention Center before the event began.
The lesser-known Democratic candidates, who did not have nearly as many supporters in the room, had a hard time getting traction with the crowd. Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor, spoke for just 6 minutes of his allotted 15. "I'm the only presidential candidate who has been a mayor, a U.S. senator, and a governor," he said. "And throughout these experiences, I have tried to earn a reputation for courage and honesty."
And when Webb prepared to speak—he was fifth of the five candidates—some attendees began filing out of the room before he even made it on stage. "I'm going to turn the lights out tonight, folks," Webb joked.
If there was conflict to be found Friday, it was on Twitter, where spokespersons for Clinton and O'Malley disputed whose candidate was first to support President Obama.
Lis Smith, communications director for O'Malley's campaign, tweeted that O'Malley was the "first Dem tonight to give @BarackObama full-throated shout out." Nick Merrill, the traveling spokesman for Clinton's campaign, replied with a direct line from Clinton's speech: "With President Obama's leadership and the determination of the American people, we're standing again." Smith fired back by saying, "Oh sorry, I guess I fell asleep during that one."
After Merrill replied again ("Be nicer."), Smith tweeted that "it was—to its credit—a nice speech." Minutes later, Smith was engaged in a war of Twitter words with Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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