At Iowa dinner, 13 Democrat hopefuls try to find a breakout moment

Image: 14 Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Iowa Liberty And Justic
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Liberty and Justice Celebration at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa on Nov. 1, 2019. Copyright Scott Olson Getty Images
Copyright Scott Olson Getty Images
By Maura Barrett and Priscilla Thompson with NBC News Politics
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The Liberty and Justice Celebration dinner is the biggest gathering of Iowa Democrats before next year's caucuses.


DES MOINES — At the biggest gathering of Iowa Democrats before next year's caucuses, 13 Democratic presidential candidates united in their focus of defeating President Donald Trump, while each touted familiar refrains as to why they are most qualified for the job.

Friday's Liberty and Justice Celebration dinner came hours after Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke dropped out of the race and canceled his appearance at the dinner.

Pete Buttigieg, who had the largest crowd filling 12 sections in the arena, pitched himself as the one to usher in a new generation of leadership.

"I did not just come here to end the era of Donald Trump," the South Bend, Indiana, mayor said. "I am here to launch the era that must come next."

He implored the crowd at the Wells Fargo Arena to focus not on his age, but on his message of hope and belonging.

"Call it optimistic, but do not call it naïve," he said. "Because I believe these things not based on my age, but my experience," he said after touting his military experience throughout his remarks.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren once again hammered home her message of "big structural change."

"Anyone who comes on this stage and tells you they can make change without a fight is not going to win that fight," she said.

As she wrapped up, she took direct aim at her opponents. "I am not running some consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone," she said. "I am running a campaign based on a lifetime of fighting for working families."

Beyond a box dedicated to "Firefighters for Biden," turnout for former Vice President Joe Biden was meager when compared to the crowds for Warren and Buttigieg. Nonetheless, Biden brought renewed energy to the stage, as he bounded down the runway and ditched his scripted address to speak candidly with potential caucus-goers.

"The next president is going to be commander in chief of the world in disarray," he said, highlighting his executive and foreign policy experience. "There's going to be no time for on-the-job training."

Andrew Yang spent his time on stage highlighting just how far he's come in the race.

"How is a man you never heard of eight months ago speaking after Joe Biden and before Elizabeth Warren?" he asked. He played up his fundraising numbers, attributing his rise from an unknown to his problem-solving skills.

Notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders decided to host a watch party for his 1,500 supporters at a separate location, rather than purchase tickets at the event.

The senator from Vermont once again denounced "massive income and wealth inequality," saying that "the Democratic party must become the party of the working class of this country. Not of Super PACs. Not of corporate interest. Not of their lobbyists."

Kamala Harris, who is moving the bulk of her campaign operation to Iowa in the coming days, garnered the third-largest crowd in the arena.

She focused on her ability to win. "Iowa I stand here before you today, for the people, fully prepared to defeat Donald Trump," she said.

About 13,000 curious attendees filled the arena for this year's event, eclipsing the former record-setting crowd of 9,000 in 2007, when then-candidate Barack Obama had his breakout moment at what was then known as the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. At the time, Hillary Clinton led the polls in Iowa.

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