DNC Turns Focus to White House

By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 3, 2007

With Congress in their control and their eyes now on the White House, Democratic Party leaders took their first look at the party's field of presidential candidates yesterday at a forum in which the three front-runners presented their positions on Iraq and jockeyed over who can defeat the Republicans in 2008.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York presented herself as a tough, experienced pragmatist. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois offered himself as an inspirational critic of politics as usual. And former senator John Edwards of North Carolina made himself the keeper of the Democratic flame, delivering a call for Democrats to reclaim their heritage.

Addressing the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting, Clinton put further distance between herself and President Bush on Iraq. "I want to be very clear about this," she said. "If I had been president in October of 2002, I would not have started this war. . . . If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as president, I will."

For Clinton, who supported the 2002 resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion and then defended the mission long after the initial combat phase ended, the pledge to stop the war represented another break with Bush's Iraq policies.

Edwards drew a rousing reception with a sharp attack on Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq and a populist appeal for Democrats to return to their roots as defenders of the union workers, the poor and struggling middle-class families. "Brothers and sisters, in times like these, we don't need to redefine the Democratic Party," he said. "We need to reclaim the Democratic Party."

Obama stated that he had repeatedly spoken out against the war before the invasion in 2003, but he pitched most of his message in a different direction. Warning that campaigns should be about more than skeletons in the candidates' closets and gaffes along the way, he urged Democrats to fight against the cynicism that he said has turned politics into a blood sport and has blocked consensus and cooperation on solving the country's problems.

"There are those who don't believe in talking about hope," he said. "They say, 'Well, we want specifics, we want details and we want white papers, we want plans.' We've had lots of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope. And over the next year, over the next two years, that will be my call to you."

The audience that filled the large ballroom at the Hilton Washington Hotel whooped and cheered and often rose to their feet in response to the candidates' rhetoric.

Besides the three front-runners, three other candidates also spoke yesterday: Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a former general chairman of the DNC, and two veterans of the 2004 campaign, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich.

Today, the Democrats will hear from Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose campaign began in controversy and apology this week over a comment in which he described Obama as "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Others on today's schedule include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel.

Yesterday's speakers refrained from attacking each other, using the forum as a brief opportunity to sound the main themes of their campaigns and distinguish themselves from their rivals.

Clinton described herself to party leaders as the Democrat best equipped to take on the Republicans in 2008. "I know a thing or two about winning campaigns," she said. "When our party and our candidates are attacked, we have got to stand up and fight back. . . . I know how they think, how they act and how to defeat them."

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