WASHINGTON -- Liberal Democrats say they are organized, united, and determined as never before to oust President Bush from the White House. But when more than 2,000 of these progressive activists from across the country gathered under a "Take Back America" banner yesterday, it was Howard Dean, not John F. Kerry, who stole their hearts.
"I'm going to do everything I can to get John Kerry elected president of the United States," Dean said in a booming voice to a standing-room-only crowd of grass-roots activists who had been energized by his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The audience gave Dean a hero's welcome as he bounded to the stage and delivered a speech that made it sound as though he was still a contender in the presidential race.
Kerry declined an invitation to address the conference, which was organized by the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive group with strong ties to organized labor. Whether Kerry was intentionally distancing himself from the left wing of the Democratic Party or choosing to spend time campaigning in the battleground state of Florida, support for the presumptive nominee among the activists seemed strong but not enthusiastic.
"We'd rather [Kerry] were bolder, we'd rather he be stronger in many different ways," said Robert Borosage, codirector of the Campaign for America's Future. "But Kerry is going to decide how he is going to run his campaign, and we're going to focus on the real threat, which is an administration that waged a preemptive war and brought preemptive tax cuts.
Borosage acknowledged that "a huge number" of the liberal activists attending the three-day meeting agree with independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's call for withdrawing US troops from Iraq -- a position Kerry does not endorse -- but "remarkably few" in the end will vote for Nader, who Borosage said was "on a fool's errand" as he pursues the presidency again.
Nader was not invited to speak at the gathering, Borosage said.
In seeking the support of independent voters, Kerry has played down his own record as a liberal Massachusetts senator, expressing support for civil unions but not gay marriage and suggesting he could nominate antiabortion judges. His focus on reining in the federal deficit, and the musings of campaign aides that, as president, he might bring Republicans into his cabinet, also make liberal activists uneasy. Kerry also supports continuing the military occupation of Iraq at least until the country has a stable government.
"I understand there are policy differences," Dean said, as he implored the liberal udience -- a group that on the campaign trail he called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" -- to compare Kerry's record as a decorated combat veteran, as an enviromentalist, and as an advocate for the middle class to what he described as Bush's inferior record in those areas.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was also a hit with the audience yesterday, said she was committed to electing Kerry, but that was "only part of the equation" of rebuilding progressive institutions and implementing a liberal agenda to challenge the power of political conservatives. "I do know a little about the vast right-wing conspiracy," Clinton said to the audience's delight.
Clinton introduced billionaire financier George Soros, an ardent foe of Bush's foreign policy, who has contributed at least $15 million to several liberal groups that are spending money independent of the Democratic Party to defeat Bush. Soros told the gathering that seeing photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison was "a moment of truth" that convinced him Bush's conduct of the war on terror "converted us from victims into perpetrators."
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, responded: "For Democrats to say that the abuse of Iraqi fighters is the moral equivalent of the slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans is outrageous. Their hatred of the president is fueling a blame-America-first mentality that is troubling."
Anger and animosity toward the president was a theme of the gathering, and it is fueling a surge of fund-raising and advertising by left-leaning groups like MoveOn.org, and creating levels of cooperation among labor, feminist, environmental, and antiwar groups that is unprecedented, officials of the Campaign for America's Future said.
"George Bush organizes progressives for Kerry the way Bill Clinton organized the right for Bush," Borosage said.
Mary Kelly Persyn, of Cambridge, voted for Nader in 2000 and was a "Deaniac" who volunteered in New Hampshire. Kerry is "not my guy; he doesn't grab me by the gut. But there is no way on God's green earth that I am going to vote for Nader again," said Persyn, who is a researcher with The Civil Rights Project at Harvard. "It matters too much to use my vote for anything but defeating George Bush."
But the threat from Nader loomed over the meeting. Jorge Rogachevsky, a professor of Latin American studies at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's, Md., said his support was "drifting" to Nader again because he believed Kerry was putting forward a right-of-center agenda, rather than reaching out to progressives.
"I won't back a right-wing Democrat just because I hate Bush," Rogachevsky said.
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