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Democratic contenders to face crucial audition

Here is why you should both pay attention to what Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the other presidential contenders say to the Democratic National Committee meeting Friday and Saturday -- and pay attention to how DNC members react.
Tom Vilsack
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a long-shot contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has a chance to impress Democratic National Committee members Saturday.Charlie Neibergall / AP file
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It’s fine entertainment to watch Sen. Hillary Clinton warbling the National Anthem in Iowa or Sen. Barack Obama getting a hero’s welcome from zealous Democrats in New Hampshire last December.

But the meeting of the Democratic National Committee this Friday and Saturday here in Washington eclipses those events in significance.

Here’s why: Each of the DNC members is a “super-delegate” with a vote at the Democratic National convention which will nominate the party’s 2008 presidential candidate.

While Mark and Molly Democrat in Peterborough, N.H. can vote in their state’s presidential primary next year, they themselves do not have a vote at the Democratic convention. They vote for a slate of delegates pledged to Clinton or one of the other Democratic contenders.

But each of the DNC members does have a vote at the convention.

In fact, the super-delegates — a category that includes all DNC members and elected officials such as Democratic governors and members of Congress — account for nearly 40 percent of the total number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

If a presidential hopeful performs well in his speech before the DNC members Friday or Saturday, he gains momentum toward getting the nomination.

The opportunity is probably biggest for the long-shot candidates such as Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut or former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Dodd is carving out a reputation as a harsh opponent of the Iraq war, saying Thursday he wasn’t satisfied with the non-binding resolution the Senate will debate next week which criticizes Bush’s dispatching of more troops to Iraq.

Dodd demanded “something with more bite to it.” He implied the non-binding resolution had little real meaning.

Dodd wants a binding measure to limit the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, followed by a withdrawal of all troops by early next year.

An audience of the savviest
This select DNC audience of 400 will include many of the savviest, most influential Democrats in the country. Back in Tennessee, Nevada, or whatever state they come from, they know all the party activists who work on campaigns. They can tell a candidate how to win a primary and where the votes are. 

“It’s a terrific opportunity for the individual candidates to begin to show what they’re made of, what their message will be, and how that message will resonate,” said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and a leading Howard Dean supporter in 2003-2004.

When I asked Obama Thursday what he’ll try to achieve in his DNC speech Friday morning, the Illinois Democrat seemed to play down expectations that he’d say anything especially newsworthy about Iraq or other topics.

“We have something like seven minutes (to speak) so I don’t think I could break some major new policy grounds in that kind of format,” Obama noted.

Obama's goal
“What I’m looking forward to is just saying ‘thank you’ to a lot of people in that room who worked real hard to give us a majority in Congress and to indicate that, as we move forward into the next campaign season, I hope we remember that we’re all part of the same team.”

That latter phrase seemed to be a jab at Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who made disparaging comments in a New York Observer article Wednesday about Clinton and Edwards — and perhaps implicitly about past black presidential hopefuls such as Jesse Jackson.

It was at the DNC winter meeting here in Washington almost exactly four years ago that a relatively little-known Vermont governor scored with his smashing breakthrough performance.

“What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq!” Dean demanded, igniting an ovation that came partly from a sense of relief that finally a Democratic leader was taking on President Bush.

And Dean didn’t stop with Iraq in his criticism of the party’s congressional leadership: “What I want to know is why are Democratic Party leaders supporting tax cuts?”

He declared, “I'm Howard Dean, and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Dean, whose presidential bid burned brightly in the fall of 2003, but flared out in January of 2004, is now chairman of the DNC.

Dean's pugnacious breakthrough
It was a pugnacious approach that suited the yearning of the moment among many DNC members.

Keep in mind that then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, had trekked to the White House Rose Garden in October 2002 to stand by Bush’s side as they reached an accord on the resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein and his regime.

It was at that same DNC meeting in February 2003 at which Dean scored big that Gephardt told the Democrats, “We must disarm Saddam Hussein,” and said he was proud to sponsor the use of force resolution. That got a chilly reception from DNC members.

And it was at that meeting that Dean targeted the ambivalent stand of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the Iraq war.

“There have been other candidates who have voted in favor of unilateral action in Iraq and then tried to say in Iowa or California or other places that they had a different position. The Democrats are never going to win that way,” Dean said.

Many analysts would say Dean proved to be right in his prediction.

In doing so Dean showed in 2003 how important this winter DNC meeting — a year ahead of the first votes being cast in Iowa and New Hampshire — can be.

That’s why you should pay attention to what Clinton, Obama and the other contenders say to the DNC meeting — and pay equal attention to how the DNC members react.

You can watch live coverage all day on MSNBC.

And I’ll be filing my reports right here on