Bernie Sanders gave his sharpest criticism yet of Hillary Clinton on Saturday night at the Jefferson Jackson dinner, the Iowa Democratic fundraiser that is one of the most important events of the Democratic primary season.

Echoing Barack Obama’s subtle criticism of Clinton in his speech at the 2007 Jefferson Jackson dinner, the Vermont senator pledged in his prepared remarks: “I promise you tonight as your president I will govern based on principle not poll numbers.” Sanders received a rapturous reception from a raucous crowd, including Sanders supporters who spent his entire speech cheering and applauding the self-described democratic socialist.

Sanders explicitly compared himself to Obama in his speech. He said “Eight years ago the experts talked about how another Democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama, couldn’t win. How he was unelectable. Well Iowa, I think we’re going to prove the pundits wrong again. I believe we will make history.”

The Vermont senator went on to implicitly call out Clinton, noting she had long lagged behind him on a number of progressive causes. In particular, Sanders cited issues such as gay rights, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Iraq war as “the difficult choices” – a subtle reference to Clinton’s memoir Hard Choices – that he has made.

Sanders said when Congress voted on the Defense of Marriage Act (Doma) in 1996, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman under federal law, “there was a small minority opposed to discriminating against our gay brothers and sisters. Not everybody held that position in 1996.” While Clinton was not serving in the Senate at the time, she was first lady and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, signed it into law as he faced re-election.

Sanders also touted his opposition to the Iraq war in 2002, which Clinton voted for as a senator from New York. Sanders said: “It gives me no joy to say that I was largely right about the war.” He added: “I am proud to tell you when I came to that fork in the road I took the right road even though it was not the popular road at the time.”

Sanders also went after Clinton’s prolonged hesitation on taking a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project which would deliver oil from the Canadian tar sands to ports on the Gulf of Mexico. “If you agree with me about the urgent need to address the issue of climate change, then you would know immediately what to do about the Keystone pipeline,” Sanders said. “Honestly, it wasn’t that complicated.”

Hillary Clinton greets the crowd at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, alongside Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
Hillary Clinton greets the crowd at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, alongside Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Photograph: Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

Perhaps his most pointed criticism of Clinton came when discussing trade. In particular, he pointedly described his opposition to the TPP, an agreement which would create a free trade zone between US, Japan and 10 other countries circling the Pacific ocean. Sanders has long opposed the TPP, which has been promoted by the Obama administration, and other major trade deals.

In contrast, Clinton was heavily involved in negotiations on the deal when secretary of state and described it as “set[ting] the gold standard in free trade agreements in 2012”. However, she came out against it only a few weeks ago under political pressure from the left in the Democratic party.

Sanders pointedly said of the TPP, “It 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.”

The speech echoed the remarks that Obama made in 2007 where he pointedly referenced the ambitions of Clinton by saying: “I am not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me. I never expected to be here.” And he argued Democrats have “always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction.”

Sanders currently trails Clinton in Iowa by a margin of 51-40 according to a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University.

This article titled “Sanders tears into Clinton’s ambitions and record at Iowa Democrat fundraiser” was written by Ben Jacobs in Des Moines, Iowa, for theguardian.com on Sunday 25th October 2015 03.40 UTC

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