WASHINGTON — White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) sits for a grilling on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, after Democratic presidential contenders on Saturday night pitch to 9,000 Iowa activists who could influence the outcome of the Jan. 3 caucus.
Obama takes his turn on the show’s “Meet the Candidates” series, a strategic timing decision given the importance of the program, hosted by Tim Russert. The Obama camp hopes to have one of the last words in a weekend bursting with presidential politics in Iowa while setting the stage for the upcoming Democratic debate Jan. 15 in Las Vegas.
Since so many Iowa Democrats have already heard the candidates, Obama and his rivals are expected to use Saturday’s Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson dinner to roll out new themes or messages.
In 2003, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), then lagging in the polls, unveiled his “real deal’’ slogan for the first time at the Iowa “JJ” dinner, a defining theme used through the rest of his White House campaign. At the time of that dinner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seemed unbeatable in Iowa.
Kerry went on to win the Iowa caucus over Dean, then Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and then Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) — now running again — and used the momentum to clinch New Hampshire and become the Democratic nominee. A staggering 9,000 people are expected at the dinner, up from the previous record of 7,500 who gathered in 2003, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) — now a 2008 candidate — was the emcee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will preside over the Saturday dinner. The 9,000 Democrats make up a critical mass of “influencers” because only a relatively small number of people actually participate in a caucus — 124,000 Democrats in 2004. These people “want to hear something new and exciting from the candidates,” said Carrie Giddins, the Iowa Party’s communication director.