Column: A night of great and expiring opportunity for presidential hopefuls

Column: A night of great and expiring opportunity for presidential hopefuls

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For many of the Democrats running for president, next weekend in Iowa may be their last, best chance to catch lightning in a bottle.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser, with its many name changes over the past few years, is widely considered a seminal event for the Iowa caucuses. It is, as state party chairman Troy Price put it to me in an interview this past week, the de facto starting gun for the sprint to the finish to the Feb. 3 caucuses.

It is commonly remembered as the event that helped propel Barack Obama to his victory here in 2008.

Will this year’s event similarly vault someone to a path to victory in Iowa and perhaps even the party nomination?

For a chunk of the candidates, especially those trailing the polling leaders in the race in Iowa thus far, the Liberty and Justice Celebration (nee Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, nee Fall Gala) that is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 1, in Des Moines represents what likely is their final hope for a breakthrough.

Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have been the consistent polling leaders in Iowa, and there is a growing chasm in the polls between those four and the next group.

That next group includes Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, and Cory Booker.

There may still be time for someone from that group to vault out of their tier and challenge the leaders. But that time is starting to run short; as of Friday, the caucuses were exactly 100 days away.

The Liberty and Justice Celebration is the last time the candidates will stand in front of so many Democrats. Price said they expect a crowd of roughly 13,000. There’s not going to be another crowd like that before the caucuses. This is the last chance for these candidates to make an impression on thousands of likely Iowa Democratic caucus participants.

The stakes seem especially high for that second-tier polling group of Harris, Klobuchar, Steyer, Yang and Booker. Unlike the leaders, they have ground to make up to remain viable beyond first-in-the-nation Iowa. This event is their last chance to do something, say something, show something that will sway the minds of so many Iowa Democrats gathered in one room.

We’ve now been through the Wing Ding, the state fair, the Steak Fry. This is it. Once the Liberty and Justice Celebration is in the rearview mirror, the candidates are on their own to generate enthusiasm for their campaigns.

And that’s not to say the night is meaningless for the leaders.

If Warren knocks her speech out of the park, she could turn her steady climb in the polls into a commanding lead. Similarly, Biden could prove he can be a candidate who is both pragmatic and one that generates excitement, and that could help him regain the lead in Iowa he held for virtually the entire race until only recently.

Or perhaps Buttigieg, who has been making his own climb in the polls recently, could capture the moment and go from a surging candidate to a true force to be reckoned with for these final three months and change.

Bottom line, the Liberty and Justice Celebration will provide a night of opportunity: for the leaders to take charge, or perhaps for a new challenger to emerge.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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