Ann Aulwes wanted to make sure that everyone in the crowd, and that included the vice president of the United States, understood the country's serious nursing shortage. An aging nation that will need more health care, she said with urgency, is in danger of having too few people prepared to devote their lives to offering tender mercies to the sick.

Aulwes offered her passionate plea by way of introducing Al Gore, who rushes from one town to another here in hope of winning a large victory in next Monday's Iowa caucuses, the first official voting of the 2000 presidential campaign.

Since Aulwes heads the health occupations department at Indian Hills Community College here, her plea was not surprising. But her focus on nurses and health care is emblematic of a Democratic campaign in which the quest to solve practical problems has driven the furies of ideology to the sidelines. A party once given to grand and divisive arguments over issues such as racial equality and the Vietnam War is back to the basics of schools, health care, jobs and money.

This evolution may bode well for the Democrats in this fall's election. But for now, the intensity gap is a problem for Bill Bradley, Gore's sole competitor for the party's presidential nomination. Bradley implicitly acknowledged his troubles here yesterday when he called Iowa "a state that rewards entrenched power." He has staked his whole campaign on the idea that Democrats are looking for a leader who would do "big bold things," as he said in Iowa City a few hours before Gore spoke here. Bradley's purpose is to increase the intensity of politics by stirring the country's reformist passions.

There are many Democrats who pray he'll do just that, and they form Bradley's enthusiastic base here and in New Hampshire. "He has a more aggressive agenda and this is a time for that," said Steve Greenleaf, a lawyer who had just watched proudly as his 17-year-old daughter, Ann, introduced Bradley to a crowd of several hundred students at Iowa City West High School. "We can think about possibilities no one's ever thought about since LBJ."

Bradley fans invoke an old-fashioned word to explain what it is they like about him. Ann Greenleaf, who can participate in the caucuses because she'll turn 18 by Election Day this fall, admires his "idealism and his willingness not to settle for second best." Underscoring a reason why Bradley seems to be doing well with younger voters, Greenleaf's fellow student Elizabeth Dunbar also used the i-word: "He's an idealist, and I think our country needs an idealist."

Jim Larew, a leader of the Bradley campaign in Iowa City, is a liberal Democrat frustrated with Clinton. "I don't think the dialogue of the country has moved in a progressive direction in the eight years Clinton has been president," he says. "I'm sick to death of politics by triangulation. It's clever politics, but not inspiring."

Bradley's chances for an upset here depend on whether the enthusiasm of restless voters like Larew can overcome the large and well-tooled organization that Gore will field on caucus night. Bradley's problem is that a lot of Democrats are not restless at all. They like the economy, they like Clinton and they like Gore--often in that order.

Rod Merkle, a business professor at Indian Hills College who turned out here to cheer Gore, summed up his case succinctly. "With the economic prosperity we've had for the last seven years," he asks, "why change?"

In explaining her enthusiasm for Gore, Maggie Bennett-Simonsen, who works in the college's program office, tells the kind of story Democrats will repeat thousands of times between now and Election Day. "The kids getting out of Indian Hills with just a two- year degree are getting several job offers," she says. "I didn't have any when I got out 10 years ago, and I had a graduate degree."

And Gore has begun reaching even the young with his argument that a more modest but practical program is better for the times than Bradley's bigness and boldness. Rebecca Solow, a student at Iowa City West High School, is 17 years old but sounds like a seasoned Washington hand in explaining her support for Gore. "It's very important that we actually get things done, that a president propose things he can accomplish while he's in office," she says. "It's one thing to give big speeches and give lots of big rhetoric. It's another thing to go in and work with Congress."

Asked to describe her political views, Solow replies with a smile: "I'm pretty liberal, but I'm a pragmatist." A lot of Democrats talk that way these days. It's what Gore is counting on, and what Bradley must overcome.