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Demos whoop it up for presidential hopefuls

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WASHINGTON — John Edwards aimed for their tear ducts, Hillary Clinton appealed to their fighting spirit and Barack Obama asked them to join him in pursuit of a thing called "hope."

The hundreds of Democrats — a focus group of the faithful — gathered for the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee weren't in a mood to choose candidates on Friday, it being almost a full year before the first primary and caucus votes will be cast in the 2008 presidential primary.

They wept, let out whoops and rose to their feet in agreement mostly as a unified group, with even those clutching one candidate's signs responding enthusiastically to the other five presidential hopefuls — including a woman with a "Hillary" placard who pronounced herself "ready to swoon" for Obama.

Even the lower-tier Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas managed to whip up the faithful with their anti-war, anti-Bush rhetoric. And Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut unleashed a condemnation of the "Abu Ghraibing, Exxon-loving" Bush administration, which he said should be pining for the days when their worst problem was that "the vice president had just shot somebody."

It was the first group appearance by the field of Democratic presidential candidates in what rapidly is becoming the longest primary campaign in history. More than 400 members of the committee and their guests were on hand to inspect up-close the candidates who'll be vying for their support, sizing them up during lengthy addresses in a crowded ballroom and, later, in smaller private sessions.

The campaign of a newcomer or a dark horse can catch fire at such a winter meeting, as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean demonstrated with a fiery speech in this venue before the 2004 presidential election. Now the chairman of the DNC, Dean is stressing the importance of keeping an open mind.

"This is one of the strongest fields I have ever seen run for president of the United States," said Dean. "We are leaving ourselves and our doors open to any and all candidates." The most that party leaders should promise at this point, he said, is to help preserve "a level playing field."

Some of the candidates think the DNC could be getting in the way of exactly that, as officials consider the possibility of limiting the number of debates among primary candidates. But advocates for Clinton, Edwards and Obama — generally considered the early leaders in the field — are worried about how to squeeze the burgeoning number of joint events into their schedules.

But on Friday, they were more than happy to appear for their collective debut, which was carefully choreographed by the DNC staff. Supporters of each candidate were allowed no more than 100 signs in the auditorium. A candidate could play no more than 30 seconds of music to accompany his or her entrance and exit, barely enough time for the Bachman-Turner Overdrive clip to reach the lyrics "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" as Clinton left the stage.

Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, described an America in which children are going to bed hungry, or crying themselves to sleep over a parent's lost job. Young people are turning down college acceptance letters because they can't afford to go, he said, while every week another parent learns of the death of a child in Iraq.

"It doesn't have to be that way," Edwards repeated in his somber speech. "Silence is betrayal."

Clinton took the stage in a fighting mood, promising the party base that she's "in to win" and that, as a veteran of the national battlefield, she knows how to do so.

"I know a thing or two about winning campaigns," she said. "When our party and our candidates are attacked, we have to stand up and fight back."

Clinton soldiered on through a mild spate of heckling, drowning one protester's cries to "Bring them home!" in a torrent of applause for her promise to end the war in January 2009 if Congress hasn't already done so.

When it was his turn, Obama mildly reminded the crowd that he opposed the invasion of Iraq "publicly and frequently" beforehand. He decried what he said is a bitter cynicism in American politics, one that "makes us afraid to say what we believe. It makes our politics small and timid."

"Democrats, this is not a game," he said. "This can't be about who digs up more skeletons on who. . . . We owe it to the American people to do more than that."

Democrats should deliver something more, he said.

"That's what we offer the American people. Hope," he said. "We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had a shortage of is hope . . . I'm calling on you to hope."

Later in the day, Obama spoke to a raucous rally of college students at the student center at George Mason University, a commuter school in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va.

The event, organized by a national student group promoting Obama's presidential candidacy, provided a preview of a campaign expected to kick off Feb. 10 when Obama plans to officially launch his candidacy. Students filled a three-level atrium, cheering, holding up Obama placards, waving copies of his latest best-selling book, and rushing for the chance to shake his hand as he departed.

Meredith Seagal, a junior at Bowdoin College of Maine who heads Students for Barack Obama, introduced the senator as "the one who will give each of us the opportunity to play a role in the awesome triumph of our time, the return to greatness and good in our nation."

Obama roused the crowd with a 30-minute speech laced with references to successive waves of reform in American history, ranging from the Civil War abolition of slavery to student movements against the Vietnam War. He urged the students to struggle to end the war in Iraq, achieve universal health care coverage in America and stop global climate change.

"If you feel this confidence, this trust in yourself, to put your shoulder to the wheel and change history," Obama said, "then I'm absolutely confident that America will change, and it will change for the better."

The DNC winter meeting continues today, with addresses by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Sen. Mike Gravel of Arkansas and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Contributing: Mike Dorning