by Rick Pearson and John McCormick
DES MOINES - Four years ago, amid a bruising battle among Democrats trying to win Iowa's leadoff presidential caucuses, the candidates were perturbed that Hillary Clinton had been selected to emcee the Democratic Party's annual fundraising dinner, fearing they would be upstaged.
On Saturday it was Clinton, the front-running candidate, who shared the stage at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson fundraiser. And as the New York senator finds herself increasingly under attack 54 days before the Jan. 3 caucuses, her rivals for the nomination made it clear they would not be upstaged by her.
Clinton used her address to urge Iowans not to get "distracted" by the give-and-take of the campaign. "I'm not interested in attacking my opponents," she said. "I'm interested in attacking the problems of America."
As the six presidential contenders attending the event were introduced, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois received the loudest ovation from about 9,000 people who filled the downtown Veterans Memorial Auditorium to watch the candidates launch their sprint to the Iowa finish. Obama, who gave the evening's final speech nearly 4½ hours after the event began, challenged the front-runner, though not directly by name.
"The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won't do it in this election," Obama said. "That's why not answering questions because we are afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do it."
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Obama said that he would present a clear contrast in the general election.
"When I'm your nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I support Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders we don't like," Obama said. "And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether it's OK for America to torture, because it's never OK."
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina delivered a manifesto for the Democratic Party to "stand up with some backbone" to display its differences with GOP presidential contenders whom he likened to President Bush "on steroids: more war, more division, more tax cuts for the rich."
Edwards also referenced his frequent criticism of Clinton for accepting donations from special interest lobbyists, but he also did not mention her name.
"Washington is awash with corporate money, with lobbyists who pass it out, with politicians who ask for it," said Edwards, who, along with Obama, refuses federal lobbyist donations.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared his differences with his rivals over how quickly U.S. troops could be brought home from Iraq.
"The leading candidates are talking about keeping troops until 2013," Richardson said as some boos rose from the crowd. "I will bring troops back within one year." Still, Richardson warned that in the remaining days of the Iowa campaign "it is critically important that Democrats not tear each other down."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware walked out and glibly said, "Hello, Iowa," before hailing a section of the auditorium filled with Obama supporters and shouting, "Hello, Chicago!" suggesting that some of Obama's backers were bused to the event.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut raised the issue of the electability of the Democratic nominee in the general election, a subject that Clinton's other opponents also have been raising.
"It is critical, absolutely critical, that we nominate a candidate who can bring our party together, who can attract independents and Republicans who are desirous of change, who want to see this country move in a different direction," he said.
Clinton sought to rebut her rivals' criticism.
"Now there are some who will say they don't know where I stand," she said. "Well, I think you know better than that. I stand where I have stood for 35 years. I stand with you and with your children and with every American who needs a fighter in their corner for a better life."
Clinton said it was easy "to get distracted" about who's winning and "who says what about whom" in a campaign. "That's not what this election is about," she said, adding that her effort is focused on Iowans and Americans who feel "invisible" to the country's leadership.
The Jefferson Jackson event is the traditional final pre-caucus gathering for Iowa Democrats. The dinner melds candidate organizing ability with a circus like atmosphere. Candidates speak amid high-school-like chants and foot stomps from the auditorium's balcony .
"They know they're going to hear from the next president of the United States," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was master of ceremonies.