Several Democratic presidential contenders auditioned before a crowd of party activists in Washington Friday. All six candidates who spoke focused largely on the war in Iraq, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.
For the first time, the announced presidential contenders got the chance to make a direct appeal for support to Democratic Party activists meeting in Washington.
It was no surprise that the Democratic contenders for the White House focused on Iraq, including some differences among them about how strongly to oppose President Bush's plan to send additional soldiers to Iraq.
Former North Carolina Senator, and one time vice presidential candidate, John Edwards said it would be a betrayal for Democrats not to stop the troop increase for Iraq, though he did not single out anyone by name.
"We cannot be satisfied with passing non-binding [Senate] resolutions that we know this president will ignore," he said. "We have the power to stop the escalation of this war. We have to use our power. We have to be strong. We have to stand up for what is right."
The Senate is expected to debate non-binding resolutions on the troop increase next week. Among those who supports a bipartisan resolution opposing the increase in troops is Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who experts say at the moment is the frontrunner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
"There are many people who wish we could do more," she said. "But let me say that if we can get a large, bipartisan vote to disapprove this president's plan for escalation, that will be the first time that we will have said 'no' to President Bush and begin to reverse his policies."
Senator Clinton also said she would not have started the war in Iraq and promised she would end it immediately if she is elected in 2008.
Clinton and Edwards are vying for the top position in public opinion polls among Democrats along with Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the only African-American in the field so far.
Obama reiterated his opposition both to the Iraq war and to the president's troops surge. But he also urged Democrats to stay away from negative attacks on each other.
"Democrats, this is not a game," he said. "This is not a game. This cannot be about who digs up more [political] skeletons on who, who makes the fewest slip-ups on the campaign trial. We owe it to the American people to do more than that. We owe them an election where voters are inspired."
Other presidential contenders who spoke included, in order, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, retired Army General Wesley Clark and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
"Get the car out of the ditch," Dodd said. "We are not going to take fear for an answer any longer in America. Those days are over."
"And I grow angry with elected officials who have dragged this country deeper and deeper into Iraq when there are so many other urgent problems abroad and at home," said Clark. "And I ask, can we not do better?"
"Democrats have an obligation to reclaim Congress' constitutional power to end the war," Kucinich said. "If we support the troops, if we truly support the troops, we should bring them home."
All three criticized the president's handling of Iraq and said they would find a way to quickly bring U.S. troops home.
Members of the Democratic National Committee will hear from more presidential candidates on Saturday, including Delaware Senator Joe Biden, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel.