LOS ANGELES -- Democrats may face tough odds against President Bush in 1992, but they won't lack for choices in their nomination race, if a candidate forum here yesterday was any indication.
A podium-pounding parade of Democratic presidential contenders delivered sharply contrasting messages to an audience of party leaders at an event billed as the kickoff of the 1992 campaign.
There were emotional appeals to the party's liberal soul by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, an announced candidate, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, whose prospective candidacy makes some Democratic leaders nervous. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas tried a more cerebral approach, portraying himself as a leader of a new generation of Democrats and outlining a detailed agenda that caters to the economic interests of middle-class Americans.
Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who quit the Senate to battle cancer, issued an inspirational call for Democrats to reject the superficial politics of recent campaigns and touch voters at a deeper level.
And former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown of California, sounding at times like an Old Testament prophet, brought the audience up short by telling Democrats to renounce their addiction to big-money campaigns and join his grass-roots crusade to reform politics.
The three-hour-and-20-minute event, featuring most of the party's presidential hopefuls, was more than just a tryout for next year's primaries and caucuses.
The audience was made up of members of the Democratic National Committee, who were holding their last meeting before next summer's nominating convention in New York City. Because the DNC members also cast 393 delegate votes, they represent the largest single bloc of delegates to the convention.
Most of the Democratic hopefuls are as unfamiliar to the party officials from around the country as they are to the general public.
For that reason, their effort this weekend to woo DNC members was more an attempt to start filling in the blanks than a competition for committed delegates.
And if audience reaction was any indication, it is unlikely that anyone gained a clear advantage yesterday.
Mr. Harkin, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jackson were very warmly received, as was Mr. Tsongas. Mr. Brown drew polite applause, as did two others who spoke, Representative Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma and Larry Agran, a former mayor of Irvine, Calif.
Although they generally avoided direct attacks on one another, reserving their harshest rhetoric for Mr. Bush, several contenders strongly criticized the Democratic Party, which has lost five of the last six presidential elections.
Mr. McCurdy said he was already "hearing from our party yet another tired, shopworn agenda. We'll turn inward. We'll use catch-phrases like 'come home' that will isolate us from the world community."
He denied that he was criticizing Mr. Harkin, who used that phrase in the text of his announcement speech last weekend.
Mr. Jackson, in a familiar refrain, scolded Democrats for not fighting harder on behalf of minorities, who represent the party's most loyal voter base.
"If I had as much support within our party as [Supreme Court nominee] Clarence Thomas has in his party, we wouldn't even need a primary season. We could go straight to the general election," declared the civil rights leader, who said he would decide in coming weeks whether to make a third try for the nomination.
Mr. Harkin, one of the early favorites in the race, offered an implicit non-aggression policy to his rivals, saying he had no intention "to define any other Democrat, and I would hope they don't define me because our opponent is George Herbert Walker Bush."
Picking up the theme, members of the audience began chanting the president's four names along with Mr. Harkin, the first of those to speak, and the first of those to bash the Republican president.
Perhaps the strongest response to an anti-Bush line came when Mr. Clinton lamented the president's failure to criticize Salomon Brothers, a New York investment firm that has admitted violating rules involving government bond trading.
"George Bush is more than happy to tell Israel how to behave. Why doesn't he tell Wall Street how to behave?" Mr. Clinton said to cheers from the audience of several hundred at a Los Angeles hotel.
Even the sharp words that several speakers had for the party's dismal performance in presidential elections failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the DNC members, who seem to have become accustomed to self-flagellating rhetoric.
Chairman Ronald H. Brown received a burst of applause when he proclaimed that the gathering was "clearly the start of the 1992 presidential campaign."
"It feels good, doesn't it?" he said to an audience of party activists who have felt increasing impatience and anxiety over the slow pace of the 1992 campaign.
All of the prospective Democratic contenders appeared at the forum, with the exception of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, who had a schedule conflict, and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who plans to declare his candidacy next week.