WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama confessed to feeling like an American Idol or Survivor contestant when he shared a stage with nine other presidential contenders at a Democratic Party gathering that ended yesterday.
None of the candidates made it to Hollywood or got voted off the island. Democrats interviewed afterward said the meeting, in effect the first audition of the 2008 contest, signaled a much more competitive contest than the early polls, which gave Hillary Rodham Clinton a big lead.
"We're looking at a more wide-open race than most people would think," said Jenny Backus, a party strategist not aligned with any candidate. "There's no anointment right now within the Democratic Party."
Clinton drew generally positive reviews for her speech Friday to the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee. The New York senator also won praise for devoting a considerable amount of time to socializing with hundreds of DNC members, who are automatic delegates to next year's nominating convention.
But other candidates also turned in solid performances, and Democrats, clearly delighted over what they regard as an unusually talented field of contenders, said it is too early to know exactly what voters will be looking for next year and how that might influence the choice of a nominee.
All of the Democrats are demanding an end to the war. In their remarks, they differed mainly on matters of timing and legislative tactics.
Former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, who spoke yesterday, criticized the plans of several rivals. Limiting the number of troops, as Clinton has proposed, or ending the U.S. deployment in the future, as Obama wants, is "not real change," he said.
"Real change is saying we want our troops out of harm's way now," Vilsack said.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a voice from the party's anti-Vietnam War past, drew scattered applause when he said that anyone who voted to give President Bush the authority to use force against Iraq in 2002 "is not qualified" to be president. All of the senators seeking the nomination except Obama voted to authorize force in Iraq, as did former Sen. John Edwards.
"If political calculations trump morality, it reveals the sense of moral responsibility that these candidates are likely to bring to the office of president," said Gravel, 76, who once nominated himself for vice president, at the 1972 convention in Miami.
Over two days of speechmaking, none of the Democratic candidates had much to say to so-called security voters, whose concerns about terrorism and national defense were at the forefront of the last presidential campaign. Instead, the '08 contenders delivered anti-war messages that drew repeated applause from liberals, who are heavily represented on the national committee.
Former national party Chairman Don Fowler of South Carolina said it was "pretty clear that no issue touches these people like Iraq." He said he was worried about "a danger" that the U.S. would leave Iraq "too quickly and too completely," and said it was impossible to predict the outcome of a 2008 election between an anti-war Democrat and a Republican who took a harder line on national security matters.
Four years ago, at the DNC's winter meeting, then-Gov. Howard Dean launched himself from the presidential pack with a speech that electrified party leaders. Those attending this year's meeting agreed that none of the '08 hopefuls had engineered a similar breakout.
Going into the two-day "cattle show," the first time the candidates had appeared before the same audience, Clinton, Obama and Edwards were generally considered the party's top three contenders.
"I think we leave here with that same top three," said Bob Mulholland, a California committeeman.
But many Democrats said that one or more of their so-called second-tier candidates had improved his standing and could become competitive with those at the top.
Maryland state party Chairman Terry Lierman was among those singling out New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is seeking to become the first Hispanic president, as a candidate who boosted his prospects.
Richardson, who spoke yesterday, highlighted his background as a congressman, U.N. ambassador and diplomatic negotiator, along with his record as governor. He called on his Democratic rivals to run positive campaigns and said the DNC should pass a resolution demanding that the candidates not attack one another.
"I don't buy this nonsense that negative campaigns toughen up a nominee. Save it for the Republicans," said Richardson, in an echo of Obama's remarks the previous day, when the Illinois senator called for a high-minded, substantive nomination fight.
Donna Brazile, a DNC member and party strategist, said all of the candidates achieved what they set out to accomplish, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who "had to humble himself" in hopes of getting beyond his campaign's stumbling start Wednesday. The Delaware senator was forced to apologize for his statement that Obama is "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean."
Stepping to the microphone yesterday, Biden looked out at the audience, grinned and said, "So, how was your week?" Shaking his head over what he said had been "a hell of a week," the senator repeated his apology to "people I admire very much," a group that included former black presidential candidates the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.