CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (CNN) - At 10 a.m. on the dot Saturday, Iowa Democratic Political Director Norm Sterzenbach blew his whistle, and scores of young campaign aides pushed through the doors of a Cedar Rapids ballroom carrying placards bearing their '08 candidates names.
They were here doing battle in the “sign wars” – an Iowa tradition where campaigns try to show their candidate’s strength and support by plastering signs up and down the walls of a big event.
That event is the Iowa Democrats “Hall of Fame” dinner – the first time Democratic presidential candidates will share the stage and appeal to some 1,000 activists in this first in the nation caucus state.
The dinner, sponsored by the Iowa Democratic Party, is officially a fundraiser to help finance the state’s January caucuses, but it is also a chance for leaders who put on those caucuses to size up the candidates.
Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Chris Dodd and Senator Joe Biden all considered attendance so important they are coming in for just a few hours between two big events in New Hampshire – that state’s convention and Sunday’s CNN sponsored debate.
Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards will also speak.
But Senator Barack Obama will be a no-show. He has what his campaign calls a “scheduling conflict” – 4 fundraisers in Northern California.
One Iowa Democratic campaign official called it “disappointing” that he chose not to come to what influential state party activists consider a critically important event, especially since its been on the schedule since January 30 – two weeks before Obama announced his candidacy for president.
Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor noted the Illinois Democrat has made nine trips to Iowa, including last week’s visit where he unveiled his health care plan.
Senator Edwards has the most to gain – and lose - in Iowa. In 2004 he came in second, and most Democratic strategists think he has to win this time around in order to stay in the race. Edwards has held a narrow lead in most polls, and has spent considerable time in the state.
Senator Clinton suffered a recent embarrassment here when an internal campaign memo became public, which suggested she skip the Iowa caucuses – where the frontrunner risks losing to Edwards.
Clinton has since returned for a series of town halls, and pledged her commitment to the Hawkeye state.
–CNN Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash