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First Glance

From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Andrew Merten
Right about this time four years ago, Gov. Howard Dean appeared before the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting and said, "What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic party leadership is supporting the President's unilateral attack on Iraq."  And then, famously: "I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party."

That speech -- and Dean's candidacy -- arguably transformed the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, the general election campaign, and the party itself.  Not only is Dean now DNC chair, but all 10 declared and prospective presidential candidates who will speak today and tomorrow at its winter meeting have adopted his views or tone on Iraq.  There isn't a Joe Lieberman in the field: All of them are critical of the war's conduct; all oppose Bush's call for more troops; and all are stressing their anti-war credentials.  Even Sen. Hillary Clinton now says she has been "one of the most consistent and persistent critics [of the war]." 

Still, the candidates differ on the particulars, as the less noticed part of Sen. Joe Biden's interview the other day proved.  A handful can say they opposed the war from the beginning; others voted to authorize it.  A few support a timetable for withdrawal; others don't.  Some want to cap the number of US troops; others think that doesn't go far enough.  And some want to cut off funding for Bush's troop increase; others think that would be a mistake.

Below, to help you follow along with the speeches, are the Democratic contenders' positions on Iraq.  Addressing the DNC's winter meeting this morning, in order: Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Barack Obama, Gen. Wes Clark, former Sen. John Edwards, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and Clinton.  Addressing the meeting tomorrow: Sen. Joe Biden, Gov. Bill Richardson, former Sen. Mike Gravel, and former Gov. Tom Vilsack.

Also today comes the latest indication of how early the presidential season has gotten underway: the start of the mating dance of the candidates and the superdelegates.  The meeting gives the Democratic candidates for president a chance to court an audience whose support is almost as key as the support of the lunch crowd at any Iowa or New Hampshire diner, but not nearly as well understood: the 447 members of the DNC.  Or at least, the 350 or so who are expected to attend the meeting. 

Here's your refresher course about who these people are.  DNC members, along with Democratic governors and members of Congress, are unpledged delegates to the party's presidential convention who can throw their support to any candidate they choose.  Also known as superdelegates, they comprise 842 of the total 4,354 convention delegates -- and therefore, nearly 39% of the 2,178 delegates needed to capture the nomination.  Their support is no small matter.  And as the candidates parade before them over these next few days, an unusual number of them may already feel committed, at least emotionally if not officially, to Clinton.

MSNBC marks the DNC meeting with another of its patented wall-to-wall politics days, which will feature interviews with Democratic presidential candidates and prospective candidates Chris Dodd, Wes Clark, and Tom Vilsack.