-- For 90 minutes here today, Iowa Democrats changed the subject.
The war in Iraq dominates the world's attention and gobbles up television air time and newspaper columns round-the-clock. But at the first in a series of forums for Democratic presidential candidates, Iraq and President Bush's foreign policy took a back seat to the economy, health care and education.
Not one question dealt directly with the war. When Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the first candidate to participate in the forums, explained his pro-war position to the audience during his opening remarks, he won scattered applause -- not the boos he has often heard at such gatherings.
The host of the forums, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said before today's event that he wanted to use the meetings to shift attention to the weak economy and begin to develop a message for his party. Still, he fretted that his audience might want to ask too many questions about the war.
His fears turned out to be misplaced. For whatever reason, the audience of several hundred Des Moines-area activists decided to grill Edwards not on his support for Bush's Iraq policy but on the domestic policies he would carry into a 2004 presidential campaign against the president.
Edwards had plenty of thoughts on those issues, but offered a broader pledge, saying: "I will cede nothing to him on any issue." Between now and September, every Democratic candidate will have the opportunity to share the stage with Harkin for 90 minutes of questioning from Democrats who are likely to attend next January's precinct caucuses, the first significant contest on the presidential nomination calendar. What became clear from the first of the events was the determination of Democratic activists to make Bush a one-term president, and their concern that the party has a significant disadvantage heading into the election.
"I feel the Democrats have been sadly lacking in the toe-to-toe fight" with the president, one man told Edwards. "How do we get the headlines away from George W. Bush and get a Democrat in the White House?"
Edwards argued that the Democrats have a "powerful and overwhelming" case to make against Bush, particularly on the economy and domestic issues. But he conceded, "We're not being heard. There's no question about that."
That will change, he predicted, once the Democrats produce a presidential nominee. "We're going to solve that problem in this presidential campaign," he said. "When we get that opportunity, we need to make sure we have a powerful message and a powerful messenger."
Harkin, in an interview last week previewing the forums, said he worried about the same problem. He said that the party has not effectively countered Bush on domestic issues, and that the president's popularity as a wartime leader could shape next year's campaign if Democrats don't find a strong counter-message.
"We're having a hard time getting any kind of a bully pulpit," he said, adding at another point, "We can't let the election be about what happened in the war."
The closest anyone came to asking about Bush's foreign policy was a question suggesting that the Bush administration has enhanced the power of the military-industrial complex. The questioner wondered where Edwards stood on reducing military spending.
"On this issue, I think you and I disagree," Edwards said. "I think it is very important for us to maintain our strength."
From there, it was back to the domestic economy and Bush's education plan, his tax plan and an economy that has lost more than 2 million jobs since the end of the Clinton administration.
The absence of questions or debate about Iraq did not necessarily reflect the sentiments of everyone in the audience.
Diane Krell of West Des Moines, who described her vocation as "activist," said she has been involved in the peace movement for a long time and is angry with those Democrats who have supported the president on Iraq. She said she believes the administration is "dangerous" to the future of the world.
Krell said she was disappointed that so many Democrats, including Harkin and many of the presidential candidates, supported the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to go to war, but she also badly wants to see the president defeated.
"I'm having a real problem finding a candidate," she said. "Where do I sacrifice my idealism for my pragmatism? I'm having a very hard time."
It wasn't clear that Edwards offered her much help. At the end of his opening statement, he turned to the issue of Iraq. "I believe in this cause," he said. "I believe we're doing the right thing in Iraq. I believe it is the right and just thing we're doing. Unequivocally." In mid-sentence, scattered applause broke out.
Edwards quickly sought to dissociate himself from some aspects of Bush's policy, however. When the war ends, he said, "we need to show the rest of the world that this was not about the exertion of American power."
To do that will require a sustained commitment to rebuilding Iraq and to turning over the new government to the Iraqi people "as quickly as is reasonably possible," and to not allowing it to be put in the hands of an American "puppet."
Tom Mathews of Des Moines said he, too, opposes the war with Iraq and fears the direction in which Bush has taken the country in foreign policy.
"I think his advisers are intent on building an American empire -- and that's unacceptable," he said a few minutes before the forum began, and just after the audience had paused for a moment of silence for the troops fighting in Iraq.
But Mathews came with a different agenda for Edwards, a list of questions about energy and the environment and whether Edwards thinks Des Moines should have rail passenger service restored after an absence of several decades. He was unable to pose the questions because time ran out.
Harkin, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992, said in an interview last week that he sees the forums as a chance for the candidates not just to lay out their agendas but also to demonstrate their ability to connect with voters, something he said helped cost Al Gore the election in 2000. "I want to test the mettle of the candidates," he said.