DES MOINES – A record crowd — 9,000 paid dinner guests and twice that many revved up Iowa Democrats — packed the Veterans Memorial Auditorium here for the largest Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa history.
For any Republican seeking the presidency and hoping to keep Iowa in the GOP column (President Bush won here by less than 11,000 votes in '04), the scene could only provoke pangs of panic bordering on political paralysis.
As the genteel party regulars sat at circular, white linen-covered tables, a raucous crowd of rank-and-file Democrats thundered in the horseshoe-shaped balcony seats up above.
The dinner started nearly 40 minutes late, but the balcony partisans passed it with rhythmic chants and coordinated placard movements and thunderstick pounding reminiscent of a European soccer game or national championship college football game.
Huge placards and hand-painted signs for all the candidates festooned the balcony railings and Barack Obama and John Edwards set off their sections with illuminated signs tucked just beneath the rafters in the nose-bleed seats. The Obama signs were in blue and red miniature lights spelling out Obama in block letters. The single Edwards sign was made up of seven huge blue placards with a white initial spelling out E-D-W-A-R-D-S and each bottom lit with a single portable light.
Hillary Clinton's sections pounded through the night with bright yellow thundersticks that reverberated throughout the hall.
Movie comparisons sprang to mind: think of the crowd scenes from Hoosiers or High School Musical.
There was more energy in the hall than in all the national conventions I've covered (four) and inaugural balls I've covered (six) combined.
Those who ate dinner paid for the privilege as the JJ dinner (as it is known universally in Democratic circles) is the Iowa Democrats' biggest fund-raiser. All the campaigns filled the floor with their supporters, but the real show was in the balconies.
There Obama supporters appeared to out-number all comers. Clinton's camp was next, followed by Edwards.
Supporters of Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson and Joe Biden gamely tried to punch through the Obama-Clinton-Edwards din but were swallowed up.
And in a testament to the energy driving all these rank-and-file Democrats, every pathway into the hall was smothered with campaign signs as volunteers stood in the early morning cold to hold positions before either signs or the poles to hold them up arrived.
Inside the auditorium, Democrats plastered every square inch of the walls and ceilings of the hallways leading to the balcony seats. Think of a college dorm at homecoming with cellophane and duck tape holding up pre-printed signs and hand-painted banners. The volume of the signs nearly obscured exit signs and signs for concessions and restrooms.
All of this to demonstrate each campaign had energy, volunteers, money and momentum. Clearly, the top three out shone the second-tier candidates, but one couldn't help but be impressed by the intensity and tenacity of Democrats whom party officials credibly describe as the most energized they've seen in a generation.
"Do we have a great field of candidates, or what," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she prepared to introduce the candidates.
The speaking order arose from a random drawing and proceeded as follows: Edwards, Richardson, Biden, Dodd, Clinton and Obama.
"A year from now we won't have George Bush and Dick Cheney to kick around any more," said John Edwards.
Edwards said when he looks at the GOP field he sees "George Bush on steroids."
"We're not a party that believes in torture," Edwards said. "We do not believe we are above the law."
Edwards vowed to tell all members of Congress and his administration, "if you don't pass universal health care by July 2009, I will use my power to take your health care coverage away from you."
“When I’m your nominee, my opponent won’t be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; or that I support that Bush-Cheney diplomacy of not talking to leaders we don’t like. And he won’t be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether it’s ok for America to use torture – because it’s never ok. That’s why I’m in it,” said Sen. Barack Obama.
“I’m running because of what Dr. King called 'the fierce urgency of now,'” said Obama. "I’m running because I believe there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.”
Richardson delivered a somewhat circular, unfocused speech that ended strong with what may prove to be the crucial distinction he will draw in the caucus campaign's closing days.
"It's critically important that Democrats not tear each other down," Richardson said. "Iowans want a positive campaign."
Richardson also vowed to remove all US troops from Iraq within one year and organize an "all-Muslim peace-keeping force."
Richardson said it was time America should "not be the policeman of the world, but the conscience of the world."
Biden said "the world is waiting for an American president they can trust" and said Americans were hungry "for the unavarnished truth," which he proceeded to supply on Iraq.
Biden said withdrawing US troops from Iraq would take at least a year and possibly more and the troops will face a dangerous move to the borders of Iraq.
"They will be shot at," Biden said. "There will still be roadside bombs and we have a sacred obligation to protect them."