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Challengers Sanders, O’Malley turn focus to Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley (left), US Senator Bernie Sanders (second from right), and Hillary Clinton appeared on stage Saturday at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines.Scott Olson/Getty Images

DES MOINES — Historically, every four years the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner has served as a pivot point in the Democratic race for president. This year, the dinner showcased that the pivot had already happened.

In the previous two weeks a dramatic reshuffling of the Democratic contest put former US secretary of state once again leading in polls in every state, with two fewer opponents and with questions about her previous email practices politically neutered, as least among Democrats.

So it was that when Clinton’s opponents, US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, took the stage in front of more than 6,000 party activists they unveiled speeches with sharper attacks on Clinton. Clinton, meanwhile, largely delivered the same stump speech she gives at a routine campaign stop.

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Her speech this year stood in contrast to the speech she delivered at the same event eight years ago. That night, Clinton had an argument for the crowd to consider: that compared to US Senator Barack Obama, she had the experience and she was electable. There was no argument this year.

Sanders was particularly sharp in drawing contrasts with Clinton on issues going back to his disagreements during President Clinton’s on trade deals and the Defense of Marriage Act, which was opposed by gay rights activists at the time, but Bill Clinton signed into law. He also criticized Hillary Clinton on her vote in the US Senate for the Iraq war in 2002.

Sanders also mentioned the explosive growth in his presidential campaign, which raised nearly the same amount has Clinton has and is on track to have nearly as many campaign staff on the ground in early voting states.

When the campaign began, Sanders said, “We had no money and no political organization. Well, in the last six months things have changed.”

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O’Malley made several references to Clinton when he referred to how he would offer “new leadership.”

Then there was this line meant to jab Clinton about a politician like “a weather vane shifts its position every time the winds change.”

O’Malley took on the National Rifle Association over gun violence more than he did the race’s frontrunner.

“We must have the courage to put our children’s safety — each and every day — ahead of the craven and morally bankrupt interests of the National Rifle Association,” O’Malley said. “The NRA has one goal, and one goal only: selling as many guns as possible, no matter the cost in lives.”

Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, of Brookline, who has raised more than $1 million for his Democratic campaign for president, said that he was not invited to speak and was ignored by party officials organizing the dinner.

This year, the dinner turned into an all-day event. Volunteers began putting up signs and staging rally spaces in the morning. In the afternoon, the candidates held rallies with musical acts. Clinton’s rally featured Katy Perry and Bill Clinton, the first time he campaigned for his wife in Iowa this year.


James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign.