DES MOINES — Hillary Clinton went into the weekend in pole position, and when Monday morning comes will remain apparently ahead.

Observers said she won the room full of Iowa’s most dedicated Democratic activists at Saturday night’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner. About 6,000 people attended, mostly brought in by the presidential campaigns.

“Hillary owned the room tonight,” said Jeff Link, a political consultant from Des Moines.

The former U.S. secretary of state and her two remaining rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination each went into the weekend high hopes.

Clinton needed to build on growing momentum. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont needed to regain his. And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley needed to gain oxygen for what has become a longshot campaign.

From left to right: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley share the stage at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015. Credit: Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

Both Clinton and Sanders scored points in Sunday’s media coverage — Clinton for a confident performance and Sanders for attacking Clinton head on, if not by name.

“Bernie Sanders sharpened the contrast with Hillary Rodham Clinton on a bevy of liberal causes on Saturday, casting himself as a principled progressive before thousands of Iowa Democrats in an appearance that could set the tone for the leadoff presidential caucuses in February,” reported the Associated Press.

While Sanders brought by far the largest and most enthusiastic crowd to the event, his performance left those not already on board nonplussed.

“He talked about himself for half the speech instead of talking about America,” said Link, who managed two re-election campaigns U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Cumming. While Harkin had endorsed Clinton, Link is uncommitted so far.

“Whiff,” he said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders making a point at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines. Credit: Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

But what many Democratic activists outside the Sanders camp wanted to discuss was the early departure of Sanders and his supporters. Supporters said the campaign’s busses scheduled to depart at 10:30 p.m. That left half the room empty for Clinton’s speech.

“Pro tip: Not considered Iowa Nice,” Tweeted liberal activist John Deeth of Iowa City.

In the cozy world of Iowa’s Democratic stalwarts, the violation of that “Iowa Nice” could easily become a problem for the Independent socialist turned Democratic candidate.

“If Bernie nominated, do his people vote down the ballot for that moderate Dem in a swing state Senate seat?” he Tweeted later.

Of the Sanders supporters who did stay, some were openly hostile to Clinton.

Hillary Clinton brought star power to the Oct. 24, 2015, Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines: her husband and former President Bill Clinton (pictured here) and pop star Katy Perry. Credit: Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

But others, like West Des Moines software engineer Jose Rodriguez, appeared interested in what both Clinton and O’Malley had to say.

“O’Malley was good and Hillary Clinton has always been good,” he said.

It was O’Malley who had the only line of the night that appeared to draw widespread applause from the supporters brought in by all three candidates.

“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,” he said.

The call for gun control, popular with the Democratic base, is O’Malley’s major point of contrast with Sanders, who gun rights advocates say has a poor record in the Senate.

MORE: Democrats make their pitches at Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner

The so called “JJ” becomes a major event ahead of contested Iowa caucuses on the Democratic side. The event was televised on C-SPAN and drew reporters and cameras from local, state and national media outlets.

The stakes were high enough that Clinton deployed major star power: her husband, former President Bill Clinton at the dinner and pop musician Katy Perry at a concert ahead of time.

That even though Clinton has been on a roll since the first televised debate between the Democratic candidates Oct. 13.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O\’Malley during his turn at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015. Credit: Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O\’Malley during his turn at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015. Credit: Katy Klopfenstein/Iowa State Daily

First party and media observers deemed her debate performance as sufficient to end concerns that her campaign might be in free fall. Then last week Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not enter the presidential race and two of her announced opponents left the race.

Most importantly for Clinton, on Thursday she showed up her Republican interlocutors while testifying before the U.S. House committee investigating the 2012  attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, her supporters but also several others in media outlets, some not always in her court politically, said while opining on her hearing appearance.

And thanks to Biden’s departure, pollsters show a rise in Clinton’s Iowa numbers.

After reallocating Biden supporters to their second choice, a Quinnipiac University poll put Clinton at 51 percent — up from 40 in its previous poll. The poll of 592 likely Democratic caucus-goers was conducted Oct. 14 to 20 and had a  4 point margin of error.

Nothing that happened Saturday seemed likely to change that.

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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and Council Bluffs Nonpareil under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.

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