Washington The good news for the nation's Democrats is that neither of the supposed front-runners for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, stole the show when all 10 of the likely contenders spoke last weekend to the Democratic National Committee.
Both Clinton and Obama got good receptions from the crowd at the Washington Hilton, having filled many of the spectator seats with their young supporters. But they didn't blow away the field, which will help keep things loose for a while, allowing more grassroots activists time to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of all the entrants.
This campaign is starting ridiculously early, for both Democrats and Republicans. The only thing worse would be to have it end early because all but one or two people have been eliminated on each side.
That is now less likely to happen to the Democrats. The stars of the weekend, judging from reactions in the ballroom and the lobby, were not Obama and Clinton, but former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Both of them played to the anti-war sentiments of this liberal-leaning audience by demanding that those now in Congress do more than pass resolutions decrying President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq. Edwards wants to pull out 40,000 soldiers now; Richardson said Iraq "is not worthy of one more lost American life."
Their view, which was echoed by former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, left Obama, Clinton and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware - who have to deal with the realities of a 51-49 Senate where nothing can pass without significant Republican support - in the uncomfortable position of seeming to be less fervent about the war. Only Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, among those with votes to cast, joined the call for early withdrawal.
Edwards combined his Iraq message with a version of his stump speech from the last presidential campaign, evoking the plight of anonymous forgotten Americans like the "8-year-old little girl (who) will go to bed hungry ... because her father lost his job." Edwards almost never mentions his own political history - especially not his 2004 race as John Kerry's running mate. This time around, he is even more a populist, and he closed his speech with a vow of solidarity with organized labor that drew thunderous applause.
Unlike Edwards, Richardson dwells on his varied experience as a member of Congress, ambassador to the United Nations, energy secretary, diplomatic trouble-shooter and now a re-elected governor. Others may talk about extending health care, improving schools, creating jobs; he says he's already done it. Vilsack made a similar claim about his eight years as governor of Iowa, but Richardson could give him lessons in speech-making.
One of the losers in the weekend oratorical marathon was retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who repeatedly invoked the West Point motto of "Duty, Honor, Country," forgetting that few in this particular audience have much experience with, or sympathy for, the military. The larger disaster was the long harangue of former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a strident critic of almost everything and promoter of a folly - a national initiative process - not even a deranged blogger could love. Someone has to give him the hook before the real debates begin.
Obama delivered a lofty address, decrying negative campaigning - a speech that put him squarely on the record against cynicism and in favor of hope. People listened intently, but at some point, the man from Illinois is going to have to put some policy meat on the bones of that compelling personality, lest he feed the suspicion that he doesn't have much to say.
By comparison, Hillary Clinton looked like what she is - an old pro, maybe a bit hesitant at the start of her first national campaign for herself but someone who draws confidence from giving voice to her own ideas. She stole the headlines for the weekend by pledging that if the current Congress does not find a way to end the war in Iraq, "as president, I will." Of course, she also said that if she had been president in 2002, she wouldn't have started the war in the first place - a statement that invites Obama and others to ask, "Well, then, why did you vote for it as senator?"
Oh, it's going to be fun, and, with luck, it will keep going for a long time.