The Democratic Leadership Council's summer convention here this week was supposed to provide a forum for the party's prospective presidential candidates. But it was a Gore who didn't attend and a Clinton who did who captured the most attention, and that may be an omen for the party as it looks to 2004.

Former vice president Al Gore became the focus of conversation despite his decision to turn down an invitation to speak, citing a scheduling conflict -- a conflict that somehow did not prevent him from having lunch on Monday less than a mile away in midtown Manhattan.

Thanks to his old running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), however, Gore quickly became part of the conversation without even showing up. Lieberman inexplicably used a Sunday night session with reporters to reopen old wounds within the party over Gore's 2000 campaign, complaining that Gore's "people vs. the powerful" message strayed from centrist principles and may have cost the Democrats the election.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) was given the coveted slot as keynote speaker at the DLC's lunch on Monday. By the time she finished with a strong defense of her husband's economic record and a spirited invocation of the values at the heart of the DLC, she had overshadowed three possible 2004 presidential candidates who had spoken earlier in the morning.

Pat Eddington, a longtime activist who had come from Alabama to participate in the DLC meeting, spoke for many others here when she said this morning, "Hillary was by far the best."

Gore's ability to command attention in absentia underscores the unique but controversial position he enjoys in the 2004 preliminaries. The other candidates see Gore as the clear front-runner, if he decides to run, as evidenced by early polls that put him close to 50 percent among Democrats. That means he can afford to skip events like this that the rest of the field cannot. Gore's friends in the DLC were neither surprised nor critical of his decision not to attend.

But Lieberman's comments were a reminder of how quickly Gore can polarize a discussion about the party's future, particularly among activists and veterans of the Clinton-Gore administration. He won the popular vote in 2000 but remains a lightning rod for criticism, still blamed by some for losing to George W. Bush at a time of peace and record prosperity.

Lieberman is particularly obsessed with Gore's future, since he has tied his own to that of his former running mate. If Gore runs, Lieberman, who has been as energetic and open as any Democrat about his desire to run in two years, has pledged not to. That pledge, he said Sunday, is timeless, but he is growing more itchy.

Hillary Clinton's appearance highlights another problem for the Democrats. That is the absence of a commanding or entertaining personality at a time when many voters, particularly those who pay only fleeting attention to politics, want something more from their candidates than a knowledge of parliamentary rules and the inner workings of the federal budget.

The long battle for the nomination will help to solve this problem, as the candidates hone their messages and become better known and more polished. But it is noteworthy that at the beginning of this process, the Democrats' best-known potential candidate, Gore, is also their most controversial.

The prospective candidates who appeared before the DLC here played their assigned parts with varying degrees of success. But none matched the combination of passion, intensity, energy and thematic mix demonstrated by the junior senator from New York.

Clinton spoke after Lieberman, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). Lieberman enjoys strong support among the DLC loyalists; in fact he has declared that if he runs, he will be the New Democrat candidate. Daschle delivered a workmanlike address but was demonstrably low-key in style.

Kerry commands attention because he is pushing the edge of the envelope on foreign policy by providing a sharp-edged critique of the Bush administration. But some attendees said they wished he had balanced that with a stronger message on economic and domestic policy.

Today's speakers included House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). Gephardt is the wayward member of the DLC, a co-founder who has been at odds with the organization over trade and welfare.

Gephardt presented himself as someone who can bridge the divisions within the party, winning strong applause by saying he was determined to put together "a trade policy in this country that finally recognizes free trade and fair trade and finally brings business and labor together on this issue." But centrist Democrats remain skeptical.

Instinctively populist in his message, Edwards picked up on traditional DLC themes when talking about corporate accountability. "To me," he said, "the greatest tragedy of this stock collapse that we've seen is not the drop in corporate valuations. The greatest tragedy is the drop in corporate values that led to the collapse."

The DLC views itself as the idea factory for the Democratic Party, but the two days of oratory were far longer on Bush bashing and Clinton defending than on new ideas. Gephardt proposed universal pensions to protect today's mobile workforce. Edwards offered ideas for greater disclosure of executive pay. Others talked about a lot of pending legislation.

A Democratic strategist here complained that the prospective candidates need more positive and forward-looking rhetoric, if they hope to win in 2004. "If the first primary is the ideas primary," he said, "nobody won."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) was critical of Gore 2000 message.