RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The countdown to the Iowa caucuses has begun. Last night's annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising dinner in Des Moines marked 100 days until Democrats in Iowa choose their candidate. Presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley and Hillary Clinton shared a stage at the dinner. Former Gov. O'Malley has struggled to gain any traction, so the rhetorical sparring happened mostly between Sanders and Clinton. Sanders presented himself as the only consistent progressive in the race. He took aim at Clinton's recent change of heart on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
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BERNIE SANDERS: That agreement is not now nor has it ever been the gold standard of trade agreements. I did not support it yesterday. I do not support it today. And I will not support it tomorrow.
MARTIN: Coming off a strong couple of weeks, Clinton argued she is the more electable candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: It's not enough just to rail against the Republicans or the billionaires. We actually have to win this election in order to rebuild the middle class and make a positive difference in people's lives.
MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was also at the dinner. She joins us now. Hey, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Political parties hold fundraising dinners all the time. What's the significance of this one for Iowa Democrats?
LIASSON: It's the Iowa Democrats' annual fund-raising dinner, yes, but it's also become a legendary event, and it can be a turning point for campaigns. It certainly was in 2007 for Barack Obama. It was his breakout moment. Undecided voters do not come to the JJ dinner. This is a show of organizational muscle. Can you pack the room? Can you turn out your supporters? Can you give a great speech? There is a lot of theater involved here.
This is the Mardi Gras of political events. Hillary Clinton had a pre-dinner rally with Katy Perry and Bill Clinton, who was making his first speaking appearance at a rally for her. Bernie Sanders, not to be outdone, marched Selma-style across the Women of Achievement Bridge over the Des Moines River and up to the Hy-Vee Hall with his supporters. So it was quite a scene.
MARTIN: A lot of theater, but was it a turning point for any of these candidates?
LIASSON: No Democrats I talked to thought it was. Instead, it was a good snapshot of where this campaign is right now. Bernie Sanders gave his usual barnburner speech against monied interests. His passionate supporters loved it, but he added something new - a sharper, much strong contrast to Hillary Clinton on consistency. As you just heard in that clip, he said, I've been against the trade agreement all along. He went on to say I was against the Iraq war from the beginning.
I was for gay marriage when few others were. The message was pretty unmistakable - I'm a consistent progressive. Hillary Clinton is an inauthentic flip-flopper. Now, for Hillary Clinton, she did not feel the same need to go after Sanders. She is coming off a series of events that have made her campaign advisers feel much more confident that she has strengthened her position. She had a good performance in the debate. She had a star turn on "Saturday Night Live." She came through the Benghazi hearings without a scratch. And, of course, Joe Biden didn't run.
MARTIN: Very briefly, Mara, Republicans are also campaigning in Iowa. What's happening?
LIASSON: They certainly have. And what's happened is that Ben Carson has blown past Donald Trump in the polls here. He's getting a lot of Evangelical support. Iowa is now the only early state where Trump is not on top.
MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson talking to us from Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks so much, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Rachel.
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