Talk privately with many of the 3,000 liberal activists roaming the hallways of the Washington Hilton Hotel this week at the fifth annual progressives' "Take Back America" conference and you'll hear excitement--and indecision. Excitement about the possibility of a Democrat winning the White House next year. Indecision about just who the occupant should be.
Six of the eight Democratic hopefuls are addressing the conference this week. And though most minds have yet to be made up--"for the first time in a long time we have a great choice," said Pat Estess of Brooklyn, N.Y.--it was Illinois Sen. Barack Obama who on Tuesday, again, got the superstar welcome. He drew a standing-room-only crowd to the hotel ballroom, where he basked in tumultuous applause and the flashes of hundreds of cameras.
Obama strategically noted that he's been greeted by similar crowds across the country, then added this bit of well-crafted humility: "I would like to say it's because I'm so fabulous," but attributed his appeal to the resonance of his message. "People are hungry to turn the page," he said, "and to write a new chapter of American history."
Though coming off an embarrassing stumble this week--his campaign enraged the Indian-American community by referring in a memo to Sen. Hillary Clinton as a Democrat from Punjab (or D-Punjab)--Obama was back on his game, delving deep into his potent bio, hitting his progressive bona fides, and managing an intricate dance of positioning himself as in Washington but not of Washington.
It was John Edwards's unfortunate luck that he immediately followed Obama. Still, the former senator from North Carolina managed to hold much of the crowd with a more detailed policy speech, but one that, like Obama's, traveled through the touchstones of the progressive movement: withdrawal from Iraq, universal healthcare, civil rights, education, and strong unions.
"What are you willing to do? How much are you willing to do? Your country needs you," Edwards said, echoing President Kennedy's exhortation of "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
Clinton, who was booed at this conference last year over her Iraq position, will speak to the activists Wednesday morning. A friendlier crowd is expected; she now supports a timeline for troops coming home.
Lani Frank, a Democratic committee person from Chester County, Pa., said the progressives are still waiting to hear what all the candidates have to say. "We're not into the rock stars," she said. "We want someone who is into our issues."
But the appeal of the rock star was undeniable, even among the demanding liberals -- at least, it was Tuesday at noon in the Hilton ballroom.
By Liz Halloran