Anti-war talk dominates DNC event

Democrats gather for live look at party's presidential hopefuls

February 03, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Real presidential candidates! Real delegates!!

Really early.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama led a parade of presidential contenders yesterday in the first "cattle show" of the 2008 campaign. Thousands of supporters jammed Washington's largest hotel ballroom for the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, whose roughly 400 members are automatic delegates to next year's convention in Denver.

War in Iraq was the overriding theme, as six Democrats tried to outshine their rivals with the intensity of their antiwar views. By contrast, the fight against terrorism, a primary focus of the last presidential campaign, went largely unmentioned.

"If I had been president in October of 2002, I would not have started this war," said Clinton, who voted back then to give President Bush authority to use force against Iraq and was long regarded as a supporter of the war.

"If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as president, I will," she said, to applause.

Clinton, who has been described as her party's most conservative major contender, had sought to stake out a strong, centrist position on defense issues, an effort to pre-empt criticism that, as a potential female president, she would be too weak to handle national security matters.

But her party's anti-war fervor is pulling her steadily leftward. Yesterday, she gave her anti-war views more emphasis than she had just last weekend in an Iowa campaign swing. Still, peace activists heckled her for opposing an immediate cutoff of funds.

"Believe me, I understand the frustration and the outrage," said the New York senator, who has proposed capping U.S. troop levels in Iraq. A non-binding Senate resolution critical of the administration's policy would "be the first time that we will have said no to President Bush and began to reverse his policies," she noted.

Polls show lopsided opposition to the war among Democratic voters, with roughly two out of three anti-war Democrats favoring a cutoff of funding for Bush's plan to expand the U.S. force in Iraq.

Alone among those regarded as leading contenders at this early stage of the contest, Obama spoke out against the war at the time of the Senate vote, when he was an Illinois state legislator.

Obama's only audience interruptions yesterday were shout-outs from supporters professing their "love" for him and the prospect of his election as president. The 2008 candidates should put forward "in clear, unambiguous ... terms exactly how they plan to get out of Iraq," said the senator, who called this week for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by March 31, 2008.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who voted to authorize the use of force but later recanted, called it "a betrayal" for Congress to merely pass a non-binding resolution.

"We have to use our power" to stop "the escalation of the war," said the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, who drew an enthusiastic reception exceeded only by the ovation for Obama.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who opposes a compromise Senate resolution against the war because it doesn't go far enough, said Congress needs to do more than "send a meaningless message to the White House."

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio said he was the sole candidate to vote against the use of force and also against funding for the war.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who has not taken steps to become a candidate, was the only speaker to refer to the need for America to "project strength" overseas.

The Democrats made largely inward-looking appeals that centered on issues that, polls show, are at the top of the public's agenda. There was broad agreement on the need to stop the war in Iraq, provide universal health care, wean Americans from foreign oil, deal with global climate change, provide more money for college tuitions, keep manufacturing jobs from going overseas and end "politics as usual."

A standing-room-only crowd gave the event the air of a national convention, almost a year before the first primaries and caucuses.

In February 2003, Democrats staged a similar show, featuring '04 presidential contenders.

An obscure governor, Howard Dean of Vermont, electrified DNC members with a slap at prominent Democrats for supporting Bush. Dean declared himself the candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," helping touch off an Internet-fueled rise that made him the phenomenon of '03 (though not '04).

Dean joined other Democrats in gloating over an '06 election victory that put them back in charge of Congress.

"As I stand before you today, I am proud to be a member of the Democratic Party - of any wing of the Democratic Party," said Dean, who now chairs the DNC.

paul.west@baltsun.com

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