Speaking at a he Scott County Democrats annual Red, White and Blue Banquet in Davenport, Iowa Jan. 23 2016 are Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Speaking at a he Scott County Democrats annual Red, White and Blue Banquet in Davenport, Iowa Jan. 23 2016 are Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. | Jacob Bielanski

Democrats fight to differentiate themselves as caucuses loom

Democratic presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spoke only 40 miles apart in Iowa on Saturday, but never faced off in person — and they mostly avoided direct verbal attacks on each other.  

In doing so, they continue a trend during this primary season in which Republican candidates largely fight each other while the Democrats save most of their ire not for fellow Democrats, but for Republicans who may be their general election opponents.

Sen. Sanders of Vermont spoke on Saturday in Maquoketa, Iowa, a town of 7,000, rather than at the Scott County Democrats Annual Red, White and Blue Banquet, a major event where both Clinton, the former secretary of state, and trailing former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley headlined the list of speakers.   
The speech came as a CBS News poll showed Iowa as a virtual toss-up between Sanders and Clinton, with Sanders holding a one-point lead only a month after similar polls showed the senator trailing.

All three circled each other at different events in the Quad Cities area in advance of the first Democratic caucus vote for the nation, Feb. 1. In separate speeches, the three candidates echoed similar sentiments, even as they sought to differentiate themselves from their opponents.

Clinton was the opening speaker at the banquet in Davenport, Iowa. There, she laid out a vision for her presidency that increasingly focused on continuing the policies of the Obama administration, particularly expanding on Obamacare. Both Sanders and O’Malley also said they favor continuing the policy, and even expanding it.

“But we have a difference of opinion," Clinton said to the crowd of roughly 400 Democrats. "I also don’t want to start over; Sen. Sanders has proposed his plan to get to universal coverage, I respect that. But we’re at 90 percent [health coverage] … I don’t want to plunge the country into another contentious debate about healthcare — getting from zero to 100 is a lot harder than getting from 90 to 100.”

O’Malley, who was the only candidate to speak at the group banquet the year before, was the second-to-last speaker at Saturday's event and echoed many of Clinton’s points. Both Clinton and O’Malley praised Iowans for being leaders in renewable energy and pledged to put forth plans to expand that to the rest of the country. O’Malley claimed he had a plan that would create a “100-percent clean electrical grid” by 2050. O’Malley and Clinton both praised Iowa for getting “35 percent” of its energy from wind power.

“Thirty-five percent of your energy now comes from clean Iowa wind,” O’Malley told the crowd. “That wasn’t true 15 years ago.”

In a town hall earlier in the week in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Sanders was introduced by Bill McKibben, the founder of a liberal-leaning group dedicated to combating climate change through, among other measures, increased emphasis on renewable energy.

University of Michigan public policy expert Barry Rabe, however, told the Des Moines Register last week that terrorism and economic concerns had ousted renewable energy as a top priority for voters.

The candidates have also been courting the vote with rhetoric about Wall Street and calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Last month, Clinton put forth plan a to impose what she called in the latest speech a “fair-share surcharge” on incomes of over $5 million. In a rally earlier in the day in Clinton, Iowa, Sanders responded to statements about the “anger” of the Sanders campaign from former president Bill Clinton, noting, among other things, that the country is angry over income inequality from “Wall Street.”

Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, who was in attendance at the Scott County event, dismissed the senator’s absence at the banquet.

“Everyone is so heavily booked this time of year,” Weaver told AMI Newswire.

Among the few differences in the candidates’ speeches, Clinton was the only one who did not openly name Republican presidential nomination front-runner Donald Trump. O’Malley made repeated references to Trump throughout his speech, while Sanders made reference to Trump’s statements on immigration during his rally in Clinton, Iowa.

All three candidates also repeatedly made the case for increasing voter turnout and stressed the importance of defeating the eventual Republican nominee.

Even where they have taken issue with each other, the Democratic contenders have made clear they don't really want to do so. Earlier this week, Sanders blasted the media for forcing him to "attack Hillary Clinton.”