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Democrats look to test their messages at largest gathering of presidential candidates yet

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The largest gathering of presidential candidates in the 2020 election cycle so far will take place Sunday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration.

Nineteen of the two-dozen presidential candidates will be speaking to 1,400 of Iowa's most active Democrats and more than 100 members of the media, said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price. Those activists will be key players in the state's caucuses on February 3, which kicks off the formal presidential nominating process.

"We think it's going to be a great opportunity for not just Iowa voters, but people across the country to get a chance to size up the candidates," Price said. He added that it gives presidential hopefuls who may not be frontrunners "an opportunity to try to break out."

The speeches will be limited to just five minutes. But former Democratic operative Matt Paul, who was Hillary Clinton's Iowa State Director in 2016, says the event may help undecided caucus goers narrow their list of candidates.

"These are high stakes for these candidates despite the fact that it is really just a snapshot opportunity," Paul said. "Find that magical moment, define for these people why you're running and what you're going to do for them."

Paul says putting so many contenders in a room can alter a candidate's psyche by making it tempting to respond to opponents' speeches.

"They need to be careful not to take the bait or try to respond or change up their plan for this," Paul said. But, he says that if a candidate thinks there's an opportunity to stand out, they should seize it.

"If a moment comes to them or a good line or something that in their gut they think works, they should try and go with it."

With a record number of candidates running, Price said the party laid out clear expectations for the event in the months leading up to it, and focused on "treating everyone equally and fairly." There were benchmarks for candidates to qualify based on polling and fundraising, similar to the Democratic National Committee's qualifications for making the debate stage.

One notable candidate who will not be in attendance on Sunday is former Vice President Joe Biden, who also skipped the California Democratic Party State Convention last weekend.

Biden's campaign says the former Vice President has a long-scheduled family event that prevented him from participating. He will make his second trip to Iowa as a 2020 candidate next week on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama did not attend the ceremony and went on to win the Iowa caucuses the following year.

Many candidates are planning rallies with supporters before and outside the event. Price said "the size of the crowds and the energy in the room" will be a way for campaigns to show their organizing strength.

"It is really an opportunity to showcase not only their vision for the country but also how they are organizing in the state," Price said, which is especially useful for candidates who aren't at the top of the polls.

Paul said the event is a "good opportunity for momentum" going into the summer, when field organizers will be trying to secure support from caucus-goers even when candidates aren't in town. That plays a critical role in determining who will do well on caucus night.

Keeping 19 presidential candidates to just five minutes per speech will be a tall task, but Price said the party has been clear that they will enforce the time limit.

"We've been very clear with the candidates that we're going to play them off after five minutes," Price said. "If anyone goes long, then everyone goes long."

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