WASHINGTON – At the first Democratic National Committee meeting of the 2004 presidential election cycle, a decidedly left-wing attack on party centrism by a little known White House hopeful clearly won hearts.
"What I want to know is why the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral war against Iraq?" former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean asked Friday to shouts of "Howard, Howard."
"I am here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he said.
Rattling off an old-style liberal agenda, Dean got more standing ovations than any of his rivals, and took a swipe that aides say was aimed at Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whom they accuse of trying to have it both ways on Iraq.
"There have been other candidates who have voted in favor of unilateral action in Iraq and then tried to say in Iowa, California and other places that they have a different position. Democrats are never going to win that way," Dean said.
Kerry, recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous prostate, skipped the event. On Friday, his doctor gave him a clean bill of health.
Democrats are distributing polls and arguing that President Bush's current approval ratings are heading the way his fathers did before losing re-election. In a party leaning more and more left, the most conservative candidate is the only one who has actually gone up against Bush.
"Don't you agree with me that America would be in better shape if Al Gore and I had come into the White House in January 2001?" asked Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran for vice president three years ago.
Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt got a tepid reception at first from a party looking for a new face. He even got a handful of boos for supporting the president's Iraq policy. But the crowd was clearly inspired by Gephardt's emotional pledge to champion the little guy as one of them.
"I'm the son of a milk truck driver. My mom was a secretary. They had no money," he said. "I have been majority leader and minority leader in the highest democratic institution in the history of the world and I'm running for the president of the United States. I did none of it on my own, I had help."
Saturday speakers include North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and civil rights activist Al Sharpton, whose long shot candidacy and racially incendiary rhetoric has some Democrats worried about damage to the party.
To offset Sharpton, some Democrats encouraged former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun to run. She was clearly a welcomed addition to the field.
"Now, I am prepared to breach the last barrier, to shatter that great glass ceiling that limits the contributions a woman can make in the leadership of this country," she said.
Democrats clearly loved Dean's liberalism most of all at Friday's meeting. But he remains largely unknown and may have trouble competing when it comes to money. Democrats also know that beating Bush will require support from independents and moderates so extreme liberalism could backfire, and beyond ideology what Democrats want most is quite simply to win.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.