With the midterm elections less than four months away, hundreds of state and local elected Democratic officials -- including a few possible 2008 presidential contenders, such as Hillary Clinton -- gathered here today at a meeting organized by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council to shape the ideas and messages they believe will help the party win in November and beyond.
But to do that, the featured speakers at the conference said, Democrats must convince Americans that they are tough on national security; that they speak to voters' values; and that they will reach out and strengthen the middle class.
"A strong, vibrant middle class is at the core of the American dream," said Clinton, the senator from New York.
Today’s speeches by the potential presidential candidates came as Democrats hope President Bush’s sagging poll numbers will allow them to pick up a sizable number of House and Senate seats in November, and maybe even win back control of Congress. “Democrats are on the rise, and Republicans are going nowhere,” said DLC president Bruce Reed at a press conference on Sunday.
But the speeches also came as some party centrists increasingly find themselves under attack from liberals. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a former chairman of the DLC, is facing a difficult primary challenge on Aug. 8 due in part to his steadfast support of the Iraq war.
In addition, Hillary Clinton -- who, like Lieberman, voted for the Iraq war in 2002 -- was booed last month when she told a gathering sponsored by the liberal Campaign for America’s Future that she didn’t support a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
But Clinton received a much warmer welcome today from the DLC, an organization her husband once chaired. She used her speech to unveil "The American Dream Initiative," a set of economic policy proposals that the DLC and other Democratic-leaning groups produced to help strengthen the middle class and help the poor work their way out of poverty. These proposals -- which aren't much different than what Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry campaigned on in 2004 -- include making college more affordable, providing healthcare to all children and making sure every American has retirement security.
In her speech, Clinton also invoked her husband's presidency, citing that administration's middle-class tax cuts and its balanced budgets. "The Democrats did it before, and we can do it again," she said.
And Clinton briefly touched on the subject that produced boos at last month's liberal Campaign for America's Future conference: Iraq and national security. But her message was one that even anti-war liberals could embrace.
"The American Dream Initiative focuses on policies here at home. But we will not let the president and Republicans off the hook for the mistakes they have made and the disastrous policies they have followed abroad."
Senate Republicans criticized the initiative. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office issued a press release calling it "Democrats' latest tax-and-spend plan" and pointing out how much the some of the policy proposals would cost.
Another possible Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., gave a speech that focused primarily on national security. He said Democrats must prove they are strong on this subject if they want to win future elections. "If [Americans] don't trust us with their lives, they are unlikely to trust us with anything else."
He also argued that Democrats can't back down from battling Republicans on national security. "We've got to take this issue on."
And Bayh stressed that Democrats must win over voters on values. "We've got to speak to more than their pocketbooks," he said. "We have to speak to their hearts, too."
A third potential presidential candidate, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who currently serves as the DLC's chairman, argued that Democrats -- liberals and centrists -- must be united in order to win in 2006. And he said the party needs to speak to Main Street, not Washington's K Street. "That is what our job and work is about," he said about the DLC conference.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, another Democrat possibly considering a White House bid, was supposed to address a later panel featuring other Democratic governors.
The overall message at the conference was one of hope about the future. "Democrats stand ready to lead again... We have the ideas and we have the will," Clinton said.
"Now all we have to do is win elections, starting in November."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.