DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton cast herself as the heir to President Barack Obama's agenda and the antidote to Republicans before thousands of Iowa Democrats at a high-stakes party fundraiser.
Bernie Sanders took a much different approach on Saturday night, calling himself a principled fighter even when it wasn't easy — a not-so-subtle critique of Clinton.
Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley made perhaps their most important pitches of the campaign so far to an influential audience of about 6,600 Iowa Democrats who could help determine the outcome in next February's leadoff presidential caucuses.
Takeaways from the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner, known to insiders as the "J-J."
SANDERS COMES ON STRONG
Clinton put the Vermont senator on the defensive at the first debate earlier this month in Las Vegas, challenging his mixed record on gun control and implying that his brand of "democratic socialism" might work in Denmark but not here.
Sanders essentially offered his rebuttal, pointing to a litany of issues — trade deals, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Iraq War and gay rights — where he took a principled stand and Clinton shifted her positions.
At one point, Sanders borrowed an argument that Obama used successfully in his 2008 primary campaign against Clinton, declaring, "I promise you tonight, as your president I will govern based on principle, not poll numbers." His cheering section roared in approval.
CLINTON TAKES THE LONGVIEW
As pop singer Katy Perry sat in the audience, Clinton joked that "sometimes you just have to let them hear you roar." But when it came to Sanders, the former secretary of state was careful not to alienate his supporters.
Clinton is taking the long view: She's building an organization to rack up the delegates needed to win the nomination and recognizes she will need Sanders' supporters to win the general election.
Her speech included several nods to Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, but Clinton trained most of her fire on Republicans, warning that they would dismantle the president's achievements if the GOP captures the White House.
This was the first time the field took the stage since Biden said he wouldn't run and two lesser-known candidates — Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee — dropped out. That gives O'Malley a three-way race, which he has sought for months.
O'Malley made a generational appeal, saying Democrats must "cast aside the worn-out politics of the past." He also showed he could be a thorn in the sides of both Clinton and Sanders.
O'Malley said Democrats need to "stand like a rock" and not turn into a "weather vane" willing to shift with the winds, an obvious dig at Clinton's evolving. And he leaned into gun control, directly urging Sanders and Clinton to support a number of gun-safety measures, including the repealing a law that gives most gun manufacturers immunity in lawsuits. Sanders supported the measure in 2005, a stance that puts him at odds with many liberals.
The former president joked he was nothing more than a warmup act for Perry at the pre-dinner concert staged by Clinton's campaign. But his 15-minute speech offered a look at how he'd advocate for his wife to take his old job.
Bill Clinton said October's highlights — the first debate, her appearance before the Benghazi committee — showed voters how she would lead the nation. And he quipped that her recent appearance on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" showed she was "a pretty good bartender, too."
He recalled her early days at the Children's Defense Fund and a legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas, showing how her biography might be used to counter perceptions that she's dishonest.
"She's still got the best friends that she had in grade school," the former president said, saying that it made her by "definition a trustworthy, reliable good person."
THE NEXT DEBATE
The three Democrats will be back in Des Moines for the second presidential debate on Nov. 14, and the dinner may have foreshadowed a more aggressive tone in the weeks ahead.
Sanders eschews negative politics, but his speech may have shown a willingness to confront the former secretary of state's record more forcefully.
"I think Bernie Sanders seemed to have a course correction in the J-J dinner from one in which he said he wasn't going to go negative to obviously focusing ... his fire on her," Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said Sunday, in an interview with ABC's "This Week."
Sanders reiterated his respect for Clinton in an interview with CNN's "State of the Union" but said voters should see their differences.
"I have been consistent over the years, and I think it's important for the people to know that," he said.
On Twitter, follow Ken Thomas at https://twitter.com/KThomasDC and Catherine Lucey at https://twitter.com/catherine_lucey.