By CBSnews.com Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn
Railing against special interests, demanding jobs and coverage for the 43 million Americans without health care, the Democratic candidates were united Saturday night in their condemnation of President George W. Bush, pledging to rally behind the party's eventual nominee.
Raising $300,000, a single-night record for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, all the candidates except activist Al Sharpton attended the fundraiser in Nashua, N.H. Giving abbreviated versions of their stump speeches to a packed room that well exceeded 500 loyalists, this was not a night to win votes. Those attending knew who they were supporting; it was seen in buttons on their lapels, t-shirts worn by proud union members and signs carried by the hundreds chanting in the bitter-cold outside. Instead of intra-party squabbling, the gathering was a statement of unity for a party that seemed deeply divided just a month ago.
After taking the stage to U-2's "Beautiful Day," the Massachusetts frontrunner, Sen. John Kerry, spoke of his military experience and how he can stand toe-to-toe against President Bush. And things certainly are looking beautiful for Kerry right now. A Newsweek poll published Saturday showed Kerry, for the first time, beating Mr. Bush in a head-to head match-up, 49 percent to 46 percent. Calling White House foreign policy "arrogant and therefore weak," Kerry enjoyed the largest crowd support, reflecting poll numbers that illustrate a strong lead among likely voters on Tuesday.
A close second to Kerry, less so in polls than in audience backing, was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. A new Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby three-day tracking poll found Kerry with a 9-point lead over Dean. Yet, on the final day of polling Dean closed the gap to 4 points, while 13 percent of voters remained undecided.
As members of the United Auto Workers continued chanting Dean's name after most of the room was already seated, Dean began with some self-deprecation, an increasing practice since his infamous "I Have a Scream" speech that followed his disappointing third in Monday's Iowa caucus.
"I want you to know that I am so excited to be here tonight, that I could just scream," Dean said, as the room filled with laughter. "But I won't," he continued. And he did not. It was a measured Dean who spoke to the staunch Democratic crowd. He did not ask for votes; the once anti-Washington Democrat focused on party unity.
"After we get done with this process, it is really important for every one of us to work as hard as we can to make sure the winner beats George W. Bush, Dean said. "The ordinary American can no longer afford the president of the United States."
Sen. John Edwards agreed, arguing that the president is shifting the tax burden "from wealth to workers." Giving his standard "two Americas" speech, Edwards pledged to fight for the 35 million Americans living in poverty.
Taking the stage to "Small Town" by John Mellencamp (perhaps the most apt of the candidates' songs that night, since Edwards often speaks of fighting for the working class), the North Carolina senator vowed that he would end the influence of Washington lobbyists. "We should cut them off at their knees," he shouted to the cheering room of New Hampshire Democratic activists, who are as connected to the Washington political machine as most any state party.
The newest Democrat of the presidential hopefuls, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, was a faithful party member Saturday night, explaining why he believes in the party and why he now calls it his own.
"There is one thing common to every religion I've ever studied about, in America, and that is this: that if you are more fortunate and more favored in life, you must reach out and help your fellow man and woman," Clark told the audience, reciting a common theme for him on the campaign trail.
Lifting his voice, punching the air with his standard half-clinched fist, Clark continued: "You must help the less fortunate, the less favored and there is only one party in America that lives that faith and represents it and that's our Democratic Party. We live that faith," he asserted. "We practice it. We don't preach it. We live it and that's why I'm proud to be a Democrat."
That was enough for a roomful of proud Democrats to hoot and holler. New Hampshire, which once looked increasingly like Clark country, was blown wide open after Kerry won a decisive and unexpected victory in Iowa.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, who bypassed the Hawkeye State like Clark, argued that of the seven Democratic candidates, "I am the one that can achieve the goal we all have of defeating George W. Bush," citing his consistent centrist record as well as a 30-year fight for social justice.
The Connecticut senator dared President Bush to call him weak on defense, citing his votes in favor of the Gulf War, the war in Kosovo and the late 2002 resolution supporting the ongoing war in Iraq.
With more than 500 American soldiers dead, Lieberman did not back down. "I never wavered for a moment on how important it was for America's security to remove Saddam Hussein from power," said Lieberman, whose only hope is that Independents (one-third of voters on Tuesday) will lean in his direction. That's not likely though, as all the challengers to Kerry are fighting and focusing on that piece of the New Hampshire pie; increasingly, one candidate winning the bulk of Independents looks like the only chance of beating Kerry.
On a lighter note, the consistently quipping Lieberman told the audience, "Looking around this room I see that there may be some people supporting other candidates." There were chuckles for the intentional understatement. Later he said his staff had noticed an outbreak of "Joe-mentum" across New Hampshire (he is improving in the polls). That drew more laughter and Lieberman smiled his reticent smile, glad he finally got that genuine chuckle he often seeks.
Most genuine of all, might have been Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, farthest left of all the Democratic contenders. Beginning the night's speeches while trailing heavily in the polls, he asked the audience to imagine him as the nominee. Kucinich's speech was a powerful last breath of campaign that has yet to take off; a campaign, that likely never will.
"Imagine what it would be like to have me standing next to George Bush, coming right from the heartland, right from the working people, right from the Democratic tradition," Kucinich said. As the crowd cheered and rose to their feet, he proclaimed, "I'm ready. The question is how much change are you ready for?"
And the audience loved it, even if very few intend to support him. Kucinich left proud, stepping off the stage as hip-hop blared. But it was the last speech, that of Kerry the front-runner, that exhilarated the dedicated Democrats.
"I am running so that we have Americans not just working for the economy but an economy in the United States working for Americans, all Americans," Kerry said, standing as tall as ever. "I am running because in the face of George Bush's jobless recovery, it is clear that the one person in the United States of America who deserves to be laid off is George W. Bush."
Kerry ended the night's speeches by borrowing a slogan from the man he seeks to replace in the White House. As a confident Kerry chanted, "Bring it on," words the president had directed at insurgents in Iraq, the audience followed his lead, yelling, "Bring it on, bring it on," as if Mr. Bush was taunting them personally.
And make no mistake about it; the Republicans are ready for that fight. With perhaps the most-organized and clearly the best-funded campaign in American political history, the Republicans are in top shape to defend the White House against whichever Democrat emerges as the candidate.