RICHMOND

It was hard to miss the swagger Saturday night as Democrats gathered at the Greater Richmond Convention Center for their annual Jefferson Jackson Day dinner, traditionally the party's biggest fundraiser.

But there was nothing traditional about this year's party.

Instead of about 1,000 die-hard activists, there were almost 4,000 Democrats from across the state. It was, according to party officials, the largest single sit-down dinner in the city's history.

There were more than 350 tables in the cavernous room. The kitchen offered 1,500 pounds of steak, 800 pounds of potatoes and 1,500 pounds of crab meat. There were three huge video screens so that those sitting at the back could see the speakers.

Make no mistake: Most were there to see the keynote speaker, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. His presidential campaign is generating enormous buzz -- and huge crowds -- everywhere he goes. Virginia was no exception.

But there was something else. You could see it in the faces of the people who attended. They seemed more confident about themselves than in years past. They seemed to have an extra skip in their step.

It was the definition of swagger.

And why not? The Virginia Democratic Party has had a remarkable string of success in the past five years, giving hope to lawmakers and other party officials who had all but given up after the Republican gains of the 1990s.

Those successes were on display Saturday.

First up was Sen. James Webb(D), the come-from-nowhere politician who managed to defeat incumbent George Allen, the acknowledged leader of Virginia's GOP revolution.

"We're going to expand the base," Webb, a former Republican, pledged to his newly adopted partisans. "I pledge to you again, I will do everything in my resources to give [Gov.] Tim Kainethe assistance he needs in this year's elections in order to bring a Democratic majority to Richmond."

Then came former governor Mark R. Warner(D), whose decision to abandon his bid for the presidency before it even began disappointed the crowd. But the applause for him was loud nonetheless, in recognition that his victory and his four years in office helped re-brand the party as the protectors of the state's fiscal management.

"Virginia Democrats, it is great to be home," he said. Then he predicted: "In 2008, it will be Virginia that delivers a Democrat to the White House."

But neither Webb nor Warner gave as exuberant of a partisan speech as Kaine, whose enthusiasm whipped up the crowd almost more than Obama did.

"We have much work to do and much reason to be optimistic," Kaine said, displaying the same all-is-well-in-the-world attitude that has been the hallmark of his first year in office.

Kaine told people in the crowd what they wanted to hear: The Democratic Party is on its way back from its irrelevance in state and national politics.

"In those wilderness years in the 1990s, when it seemed like things were going against us, you kept the fires burning, and you kept the hope alive in your communities," he said. "Because you knew one day the Democratic Party would roar back strong. And friends, tonight is proof that we are there, and we are on the move and we are going to stay strong going forward."

Kaine was boasting. But his boast is partly true.

The victories of Kaine, Warner and Webb have dramatically altered the state's political calculations. What once was considered a reliably Republican country is now anything but, in the minds of political strategists and consultants in Virginia and nationally.

Presidential candidates talk about campaigning here, realizing that in a close race, the state's 13 electoral votes could swing the election from Democrat to Republican. Indeed, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) moved her headquarters from the District to offices in Ballston.

Even at home, Republicans in the General Assembly altered their legislative strategy this year to respond to Democratic gains, especially in Northern Virginia. Gone is the obstructionist, anti-tax rhetoric of the past several years. It's been replaced by a willingness to deal on transportation because they sense the GOP could be in trouble if they don't.

But Democrats would be wise to remember that it was not long ago, after more than 100 years in power, that their party displayed an arrogance that allowed Republicans take over.

The line between swagger and arrogance is a fine one.