VIENNA, Va. – Democratic presidential candidates faulted their own party as well as assailing Republicans as they pitched their candidacies to the staunchest of Democrats on Friday.
Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich addressed officials who make up the Democratic National Committee, their last opportunity to speak to such a gathering before the first presidential voting begins in January. Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to speak, too, but canceled after a man took hostages at her office in Rochester, N.H.
Richardson did not go easy on the party, assailing the Democratic-controlled Congress for its failure to accomplish more and calling on the party to win back people's confidence.
"That begins with proving that we're listening to them," he said.
"Look at the last twelve months. Not only are we still in Iraq, we still have the failure called No Child Left Behind. We still have 9 million children with no health insurance. We're still allowing this president to thumb his nose at the Bill of Rights. We're slipping into a recession," Richardson said. "And we can't even reject an attorney general who refuses to condemn torture."
Edwards blamed Democrats as well as Republicans for isolating Washington from the rest of the country.
"The American people are on the outside," he said. "And on the other side, on the inside, are the powerful, the well-connected and the very wealthy. ... The truth is that it's not just Republicans who built this wall. Democrats helped."
Obama called for tossing out past electoral strategies to embrace independents and disaffected Republicans. Without mentioning front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton's name, he suggested that if she were to win the nomination, Republicans would reprise the divisions of the 1990s.
"They're counting on the same bitter partisanship and the same electoral map that we've had for far too long," he said of the Republican Party.
Biden, noting his long tenure in the Senate, portrayed himself as the Democrat best able to withstand Republican criticism.
"Before a Democrat can lead, he or she must get elected," he said. "We know the Republican playbook. They'll say we're weak. They'll play on people's fears, not their hopes. Ask yourself: Who do you want in the ring to take their best shots and then give it back, better, harder, and faster than they gave it?"
Clinton never made it to the Sheraton Premiere Hotel in Vienna, and DNC Chairman Howard Dean announced from the podium that she would not make an address. Outside the hall, aides kept track of the hostage news on their mobile phones and on television screens scattered around the lobby.
Sen. Christopher Dodd skipped the session to campaign in Iowa.
Biden, before beginning his speech, somberly said he heard the news about the hostage taking as he made his way to Washington from his home in Wilmington, Del., and said he spoke for everybody in hoping "it all works out right."
"I wish Hillary the best of luck," he added.
Kucinich alluded to the hostage situation during his speech.
"We're in solidarity totally at this moment as we think about what she's going through," he said.
Both Edwards' and Obama's speeches clearly had Clinton's candidacy in mind. Clinton, ahead in national polls but bunched with both men in Iowa, is perceived in some surveys as being too calculating and of telling voters what they want to hear.
"Poll driven positions because you're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about it just won't do," Obama said.
"Too many politicians from both parties are choosing self-preservation over principle, compromise over convictions," Edwards said.
But all had a common foil as well — President Bush. Some of the loudest applause came when each of the candidates reminded DNC members that whatever the outcome next November, Bush would no longer be president.
Obama joked that "my cousin Dick Cheney" won't be on the ballot, a reference to a study that found the two men share an ancestor. "We've been trying to hide that for a long time," he added.
And Edwards specifically distinguished himself from Bush.
"It is time for a president who asks America to be patriotic about something other than war," he said. "As your president, I will call on you to sacrifice so that we can move this country forward again."
Richardson, trying hard to join the front-runners in the polls, chastised the field for not talking more about jobs and voiced implicit criticism of Obama, Edwards and Clinton for suggesting that some troops may have to stay in Iraq for some time.
"This is the hard reality — you can't say you'll end the war in Iraq if you're leaving thousands of troops behind, or if you won't even commit to removing them by 2013," he said.