Democratic Candidates Press Flesh in California

Nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates were in San Diego over the weekend making their pitches for support to the California Democratic Party Convention. Iraq dominated the candidates' speeches; pledges to bring the troops home brought the loudest cheers.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates were in San Diego this weekend making their pitches for support to the California State Party Convention. Senator Hillary Clinton spoke first, but she may as well have been speaking for the entire group.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I want you to know that the very first thing I will do upon taking office is to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

ELLIOTT: NPR's Ina Jaffe is in San Diego with Clinton and the other hopefuls, and joins us now.

Ina, should we assume that the Iraq war was issue number 1 on the Democratic candidates' agenda?

INA JAFFE: Absolutely, Debbie. The stronger the statement about ending the war, the more scathing the comment about the way President Bush has handled the war, the bigger the cheers from the crowd. All the candidates also talked about global warming. They all talked about having a national health care policy and about restoring America's declining reputation abroad, but Iraq was really the issue that everybody cared most about.

I should say there's one candidate that did have one issue pretty much all to himself - that's Barack Obama. He talked about ending the destructive partisanship that leads to cynicism, he says, about American politics. And here's what he had to say:

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): People tell me I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I promise you this: I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

JAFFE: And I should say that after this speech, there were supporters - new supporters of him, as well as old ones - lined up down the hall upstairs in the convention center waiting to get into a room so they could become volunteers for his campaign.

ELLIOTT: Did anything happen at this convention that changed the status quo in the presidential race?

JAFFE: You know, not really, Debbie. The media has been criticized for talking about the top three candidates in each party. With the Democrats - you know, that being Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards - but the delegates maybe felt the same way, too. Those three candidates had the most bodies in the seats, the most cheering, the most passionate responses.

ELLIOTT: And how did the delegates respond to the so-called second-tier candidates?

JAFFE: Well, you know, in every hard-core Democratic crowd there's going to be a cadre of Dennis Kucinich loyalists. He is the congressman from Ohio, and they like his idealism and his proposals for, for example, starting a Department of Peace. And then there's Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and the media talks about him as the resume candidate because he's also been energy secretary, an ambassador to the U.N., and has negotiated with leaders around the world.

But he was talking about himself as the resume candidate, too, and making a strong pitch to the delegates to support him because of his experience saying: don't go with the rock star, a veiled reference to Obama; don't vote for somebody who's got all the money, a veiled reference to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; and don't vote for someone just because they are a legacy candidate, again, a veiled reference to Senator Clinton.

I should have to say that the delegates that I spoke to, some of them have made up their minds; most of them haven't. They are very excited about their prospects for 2008, for regaining the White House, and they pretty much liked the entire field, and they're going to wait to make up their minds.

ELLIOTT: They like having options.

JAFFE: You bet.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Ina Jaffe in San Diego, at the California Democratic Party Convention. Thanks so much.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

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