Though the smiles are fixed, hands are extended for a firm shake and fitting anecdotes are always at the ready, endless candidate forums (search ) are taking their toll on the Democratic primary field, say insiders.

But no one dares blow them off.

“Basically there are too many of them and all the campaigns are frustrated with how many there are,” said one staffer for a Democratic presidential candidate who did not want to be named.

More than any other time in recent political history, the candidate forum is all the rage among Democratic special interest groups. From labor unions to environmental groups to senior citizen advocates, everyone wants a piece of the 2004 election, and bringing in the nine Democrats for an intimate noshing of the issues is seemingly the perfect way to make that happen.

But in many cases, the candidates have been left hop-scotching over state lines daily to make every invite whether or not it appears to be worth it.

“Most people are not paying attention to these things – but they have to kiss the rings of the special interests,” said Jim McLaughlin, a GOP pollster for McLaughlin & Associates in New York.

“Off the record, they are a pain in the a--,” declared one Democratic strategist who is working with one of the campaigns and did not want to be named.

“They take away from where they [candidates] should be,” the strategist added. “They take away from the message, the fund raising and from being in front of other targeted groups they need to be at.”

Since June, the nine candidates, including the five congressional members who have often missed legislative votes to be at voter forums, have kept up a grueling pace. In August alone, they went before gay rights activists, environmentalists, unions, local party committees, senior groups and college students.

Some events are televised, most are not, and none provide the excitement of a real crossfire debate like those getting officially started in September. At most of these functions, candidates take part in question-and-answer sessions and do not engage each other.

And often, they are forced to narrowly tailor their message to fit the audience, say experts.

“They are embarrassing to go to, like having a job interview every time,” said Rich Galen, Republican Leadership Council strategist.

Since most of the special interest groups sponsoring these forums hail from the activist left of the party – the Democratic base expected to turn out for the primaries – the candidates have had to wave their liberal bona fides on more than one occasion.

“It’s really about making the leadership in these groups supportive of you,” said Rashad Robinson, an analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy. “These are the groups that are going to determine who is on the ground, helping the candidates on the campaign.”

For example, earlier this month, candidate Sen. John Edwards (search) told an AFL-CIO-sponsored event in Chicago that he takes labor issues personally because his mother and brother were members of unions. Sen. John Kerry (search ) drove up to a League of Conservation Voters forum in Los Angeles in an environmentally correct electric car.

When asked how she felt about gay marriage at an event at Oklahoma State University, candidate Carol Moseley Braun (search ) talked of the pride she felt for an aunt who endured the stigma of marrying a white man in the 1950s. She suggested there wasn’t “any difference between interracial marriage and same-sex marriage.”

While the anecdotal personal touches can’t hurt, disagreeing with the audience or failing to show can have disastrous effects, as some candidates have already found out.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Rep. Dennis Kucinich were forced to rearrange their schedules in July after Kweisi Mfume, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, publicly blasted them for not appearing at a forum held during the group’s annual convention.

“They went there the next day groveling on their hands and knees,” said McLaughlin.

At Oklahoma State University, Lieberman was also forced to endure booing when he said he opposed same-sex marriages.

Spokesman Adam Kovacevich said Lieberman refuses to “pander” to crowds and believes he gets more respect by sticking to his guns on the issues, even if they match opinions held by his ultimate opponent, President Bush.

“We don’t seek to go before groups to disagree with them, but we won’t run away from our areas of disagreement when we are pressed about them,” he said.

Lieberman's ability to distinguish himself from the pack in the end may make the frenetic pace worth it, said Howard Opinsky, press secretary for Sen. John McCain in his unsuccessful primary run against Bush in 2000.

“Ultimately, these debates and joint activities are good for those candidates who take advantage of them, who can make some statement or gesture that will distinguish themselves from the rest,” he said. “The key is to remain true to what you believe in."