DES MOINES, Iowa -- On Sunday, most Americans turned their clocks forward for daylight-saving time. But for 90 minutes here, it felt as if time had been turned back.
Facing some of the Democratic party's most engaged activists in a candidate forum, U.S. Sen. John Edwards fielded sharp questions on issues including health care, education and the rural economy. No one asked him about his views on Iraq.
Though the war might seem all- consuming, the Sunday event indicated that its prominence may fade as Democrats decide which candidate is best-suited to take on President Bush in 2004, activists said in interviews afterward.
"Every person in this room cares about Iraq and has an opinion about it, but we also care about domestic issues and are concerned that those issues are getting cast aside," said Margi Weiss, a cultural affairs specialist. "It's one issue. It's an important issue to me. But if a candidate were right on all the other issues, I guess we could just agree to disagree."
Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat who supports the war, appeared at the first in a series of "Hear it from the Heartland" sessions planned by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, for the party's nine declared presidential candidates.
With Harkin as master of ceremonies, Edwards told a crowd of more than 200 likely caucusgoers that his middle-America upbringing and his tenacity best position him to make the "powerful and overwhelming" case that Bush should be turned out of office.
"I will cede nothing to him," Edwards said. "I will cede no issue to him, and I will cede no part of the country to him."
Edwards accused Bush of running a "government of the insiders, by the insiders, for the insiders" and mocked Bush's promise during the 2000 campaign to bring "prosperity to every forgotten corner of America."
If facing Bush in a debate, Edwards said he would be eager to ask, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
The question drew laughs and then applause from the audience in the atrium of a downtown history museum. Edwards also was well-received when pledging to protect a woman's right to an abortion, accusing Attorney General John Ashcroft of eroding civil liberties and promising to roll back the part of Bush's tax cut that benefits the wealthiest.
In opening remarks, Edwards did outline his position on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: "I stand behind it -- period."
In contrast to other recent appearances, no one challenged him on it.
"There is a core group of activists for whom the war will be a defining issue," said Angie King, a retired teacher who opposes the war. "But how prevalent that will be is hard to predict. It's a long way between now and January of 2004," when Iowa Democrats are to hold the nation's first nominating contest.
The issue has scrambled the fortunes of some candidates. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, among the war's harshest critics, has seen his poll numbers rise in early nominating states as he rails against "the president's unilateral attack on Iraq."
A poll last week from New Hampshire, for example, showed Dean drawing even with front-runner U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in the first primary state.
Aided by Hollywood, Dean posted a higher fund-raising total for the first quarter than most analysts expected. His take of $2.6 million was far shy of Edwards' $7.4 million, but it put him in the same league as two candidates who support the war, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who raised $3 million, and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who raised $3.6 million.
Underscoring Dean's stance on the war, an event of his set for today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, features musicians David Crosby and Graham Nash, who were antiwar activists during the Vietnam era.
Meanwhile, Edwards and the others who support the invasion of Iraq have taken flak for their positions. Edwards drew boos from party activists attending the California Democratic convention last month, and protesters have shown up at several of his events since then, including a Saturday night speech in Asheville during which Edwards called the conflict in Iraq "a just and moral cause."
Kerry last week illustrated another challenge for Democrats campaigning in wartime. In arguing against the Bush administration, Kerry said it is time for a "regime change" back home. He had made the same comment several weeks before, but with hostilities under way, Kerry's words drew much criticism.
Though most voters won't focus on the presidential race for months, activists in early nominating states are already choosing sides, and in some cases, the candidates' stands on the war have influenced their choices.
Kathleen O'Donnell, a 39-year-old lawyer in Keene, N.H., for example, said recently that several of her fellow lawyers have tried to persuade her to support Edwards.
"If not for the war, it would be a perfect fit," O'Donnell said. "But that's a big issue for me."
Washington correspondent John Wagner can be reached at (202) 662-4380 or email@example.com.