DES MOINES — The two leading Democratic contenders, having met once on a debate stage, were preparing for a different kind of showdown here Saturday night — a ritual that has come to be seen as an early indicator of who has the edge for the Iowa caucuses, which are less than 100 days away.
In remarks prepared for an important Democratic dinner here, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoed a line that Barack Obama had used at the same event against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2007. Sanders promised that he would govern on principle, not polls.
Meanwhile, Clinton aides said, her speech would stress that she would be a fighter who would deliver results.
As the hours ticked down before the dinner, Clinton and Sanders held dueling rallies for their supporters outside the Hy-Vee Hall, where the event was to be held.
Clinton’s featured a performance by pop megastar Katy Perry, who wore an American flag as a cape from her white sequined gown, and a warm-up speech by former president Bill Clinton, who was making his first appearance of the campaign in Iowa on his wife’s behalf. Her campaign said it drew more than 4,000 people.
Bill Clinton made a joking reference to his wife’s effort to make history as the first woman to be elected president.
“There’s been a lot of talk about breaking the glass ceiling,” the 42nd president said. “I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.”
Overhead, however, a circling plane towed a banner that read: “REVOLUTION STARTS NOW! FEEL THE BERN!”
Across the Des Moines River, supporters of Sanders gathered for a pre-dinner enthusiasm booster of their own. The Sanders event lacked the glitz of Perry and a former president, but it displayed the progressive grass-roots energy that has fueled the Vermont senator’s campaign.
As they waited for the candidate to arrive, Sanders supporters passed a microphone among themselves to offer the many reasons they are backing his candidacy, from reducing income inequality to combating climate change.
The latest poll by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics found that Clinton and Sanders are locked in a relatively tight race in this state, where the first contest of the 2016 primary season is scheduled to be held Feb. 1. She led him by seven percentage points, 48 percent to 41 percent.
Meanwhile, the third contender whose name was tested, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, barely made a showing in the survey, getting 2 percent.
The Iowa Democratic Party gathering — known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, or JJ — has been an important moment on the campaign calendar since 1975.
The state’s quirky caucuses first assumed an outsize role in the nominating process during the previous presidential election, in 1972. At the 1975 dinner, seven White House hopefuls showed up, and a little-known former governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter made a big impression. He also won a straw poll organized by the Des Moines Register, nabbing 256 votes.
From there, the JJ Dinner grew into an extravaganza that combined the elements of a political rally and a beauty pageant.
Never, however, did it loom more significant than eight years ago, when Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, showed up with hordes of young, exuberant supporters and gave a speech that is considered to be one of the best of his career.
Clinton, presumed until then to be the 2008 front-runner, seemed flat by comparison. It was a harbinger of what was ahead for Clinton: She came in third at the Iowa caucuses, and her campaign never really recovered.
This time, Clinton arrived in Des Moines at a moment of resurgence, after a season of setbacks.
Her poll numbers took a hit over the summer, as she struggled with a controversy over her use of a private e-mail account and server, rather than a government one, while she was secretary of state. Meanwhile, Sanders has tapped into the passions of the Democratic left; he was narrowing the gap, and in some early-state polls, even overtaking Clinton.
But the month of October may be turning out to be a pivotal one for her. She dominated the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, which took place Oct. 13; on Thursday, she endured an 11-hour grilling by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, in which the Republicans who led the panel flailed in their efforts to pin on her the blame for the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Libya that cost the lives of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
In his remarks to her supporters, Bill Clinton said that the debate and her testimony at the hearing gave voters a chance to see his wife unfiltered, “without all the barnacles.”
“The American people in the last six weeks have seen a lot of Hillary, what she’s for, and why she’s running and what kind of president she would be,” he said.
She also got good news Wednesday, when Vice President Biden announced that he would not run for president. Although he would have been a long shot against Clinton, he could have cut into her support with the Democratic Party establishment and its fundraising base, as well as challenging her claim to having the most experience at the top levels of government and on foreign policy.
Dan Balz contributed to this report.