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Wide-open Democratic field

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democratic party leaders gathered in Washington on Friday to listen to fiery speeches from a growing field of presidential candidates.

While the candidates may appeal to different constituencies within the party, they all rallied around a single goal: beating President George W. Bush in 2004.

Gephardt, D-Missouri, said: "I've thought a lot about the world and how George Bush sees the world and it ain't even close."

More than 500 Democrats gathered for the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting here. Over the three-day meeting, seven of the eight declared presidential candidates get a chance to convince party leaders that he or she has the right stuff to take on Bush next year.

Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Illinois, and former Gov. Howard Dean, D-Vermont, spoke on Friday.

On Saturday, Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio will address the meeting. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, was scheduled to speak, but is still recovering from prostate surgery performed last week.

Harold Ickes, former Clinton White House official and a DNC Member, echoed what most other DNC members and state party leaders told me Friday: It's too early to say which candidate is leading the race to win the party's nomination. But he stressed that the president's agenda is one thing people are concerned about.

"People are really beginning to understand how radical it is. It's radical with a smile and compassion as it's headline, but it is not compassionate, " Ickes said.

Party leaders argued that the crowded Democratic field -- currently at eight candidates but potentially growing to double digits soon -- could work to the party's advantage.

Ray Buckley, vice chair of the New Hampshire Democratic party, described the still-growing field as a team, all working together to pull on the same rope -- "pulling down the stature of George W. Bush...the more the merrier for me."

Buckley wasn't ready to endorse any one candidate either He said the contest is still up for grabs in his state, home of the first presidential primary. "That's the beauty of what's happening in New Hampshire. Even though Senator Kerry and Governor Dean are expected to do well, any one of these guys could break through, " Buckley told me.

Rickey Cole, Mississippi Democratic Party State Chair, argued that if Democrats want to win, they need to adjust their message to appeal to voters in the South: "They have to understand that in our part of the country the word 'liberal' is a four-letter word. But you don't have to sell yourself out. You don't have to abandon your principles. You do have to come to our part of the country and shoot straight with people."

The '04 Democratic field now includes two African-American candidates -- the Reverend Al Sharpton and former Sen, Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Illinois. Yvonne Gates, Chair, DNC Black Caucus, said that the diversity in the Democratic field was important because now issues like affirmative action are part of the debate.

Donna Brazile, former Gore campaign manager, and a DNC member, warned that Democrats shouldn't take the African-American vote for granted. "The days of last week campaigning, two-week campaigning, it's quite frankly disgusting and people are tired of it."

Brazile, not affiliated yet with any '04 candidate, praised Dean on Friday, saying he "stirred her spirits." She even offered to give him some of her own frequent flyer miles to campaign in African-American communities.

Laina Hamilton, an American University student attending the DNC meeting, said she has been planning to move to North Carolina to work for Edwards' campaign, but listening to other candidates made her reconsider.

"I heard a great speech by Representative Gephardt that really hit home. And just having heard Governor Dean speak -- it was phenomenal. Every line was a standing ovation." she said.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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