The Democratic Party awoke from its autumn slumber Saturday night in a small banquet hall amid the snowy fields of eastern Iowa.
The third annual Linn County Democratic Party Sustaining Dinner, at $25 a head, lured more than 300 loyalists and three of the party's six declared presidential candidates to the landscape that local artist Grant Wood made famous in "American Gothic."
Unofficially, the dinner served as a kickoff for the Iowa caucuses -- the first event on the 2004 presidential nominating calendar, now less than a year away. But the gathering may best be remembered for the unspoken message that rang through the candidates' rhetoric: Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts all demonstrated that they will not flinch from political combat the way so many Democrats did during the dispiriting fall midterm elections.
Democrats should "not worry about Rush Limbaugh and [not] worry about the president's popularity rating," Dean practically shouted, but "rather stand up for what we believe in as Democrats."
That included, by unanimous consent, universal health care, better schools, a multilateral approach to foreign policy, government backing of affirmative action, greater environmental protection, a reversal of President Bush's tax cuts and, this being Iowa, increased use of corn-based ethanol to wean the country from its reliance on foreign oil.
That was not an unusual Democratic laundry list, or nearly as "bold and distinctive" as Gephardt suggested. More noteworthy was the heaping scorn the candidates piled on as the evening's accompaniment to a buffet spread of salad, roast pork, green beans and baked potatoes.
Standing before a small blue curtain, flanked by an American flag and Iowa's state banner, the candidates derided Bush's economic policy as "dead wrong" and dubbed his policy toward North Korea "inept." His stand on affirmative action was deemed a "disgrace," and his homeland security policy branded a dangerous, disastrous failure.
The crowd ate it up.
"Fabulous," said David Loebsack, a political science professor at nearby Cornell College and one of the event organizers. "This is what we needed to hear, more taking George Bush head-on. I think everyone recognizes that wasn't done before November 2002, and Democrats suffered as a result."
The candidates themselves failed to make the same vociferous case against Bush last fall when they were out stumping for congressional candidates but not yet officially running for president. Dean came closest, he pointed out Saturday, by being the only one of the three who opposed October's compromise resolution authorizing war with Iraq. Kerry and Gephardt straddled the issue by defending their votes as a necessary step toward rallying international opposition to Saddam Hussein, while at the same time faulting Bush, as Kerry suggested, for itching to go to war.
Many of the party faithful here were miffed that two of the other top-tier candidates failed to show. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards cited a scheduling conflict -- although some said that invitations had gone out a year ago. And Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, an observant Jew, makes it a practice not to campaign on the Sabbath -- but several people noted that he could have made it to the event after sunset. Organizers said the other declared candidate, the Rev. Al Sharpton, was not invited because his status was unclear when invitations went out.
Iowa always draws an inordinate amount of political attention, thanks to its lead role in the presidential winnowing process. But the state also is worth watching because of the close finish in the 2000 election, when Democrat Al Gore beat Bush in Iowa by a mere 4,000 votes. The president faces no opposition in the Republican race, but he has hardly ignored the state -- visiting several times since his election and reportedly planning a return stop next week after his State of the Union speech.
For their part, Iowa Democrats in November accomplished something they haven't managed to do since the 1960s -- reelect one of their governors. Running on the same ticket, Iowa's scrappy Sen. Tom Harkin won reelection to a fourth term by going straight after Bush and the tax cuts at the heart of his economic plan. Perhaps his success emboldened others; clearly, Democrats on Saturday weren't shrinking from the fight the way they had just a few months ago.
"One thing we don't need in the United States of America is a second Republican Party," Kerry said, stirring the crowd to one of the night's many ovations.
There was a good deal more said -- about schools and campaign finance and health care -- but little else seemed to resonate as clearly as the candidates' intonations and attitudes. On a frigid Saturday night, for a group of Democratic partisans eager to end their party's hibernation, that was enough.