As the Democratic presidential candidates gather in Washington to make their pitch to party activists this week, "liberal" is suddenly no longer a dirty word.
In recent months, virtually the entire Democratic field has tacked left -- not just on the Iraq War, but on health care, taxes, energy issues and gay rights. In each of those areas, much of the field is standing to the left of where Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., stood in 2004, when President Bush lampooned Kerry as a "Massachusetts liberal."
"They're responding to the reality of the primaries, where the center of gravity is far to the left of the electorate as a whole," said Erik Smith, a Democratic consultant who is not affiliated with any of the 2008 candidates. "The discussion with the greater American public is just getting started. They have plenty of time to define themselves, but you don't come all the way back to the center."
The shift has been most striking on Iraq, where none of the Democrats support President Bush's current strategy. In sharp contrast to 2004, when several candidates remained supportive of the war mission, the disagreements among the Democratic presidential candidates now extend only to how best to bring an end to the war.
A year ago, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was roundly booed at the Take Back America conference when she stated her opposition to setting a deadline for troop withdrawal. When Clinton addresses the same gathering of 3,000 progressive activists Wednesday, it comes shortly after she reversed course and voted to cut off funding for the troops as a means of ending the war.
"She comes to this conference I think in a very different posture," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, the group that is organizing this week's conference.
With polls showing a substantial majority of voters ready to support a Democrat next year, the party as a whole appears to be in a good position to reclaim the presidency after two terms of Republican control. The party is animated in large part by its animus toward Bush, making the left feel like friendly terrain for candidates.
But some observers say that the candidates' zeal to appeal to the party's liberal base could cost them in the general election with the independent-minded voters they'll need to win.
That is a particular concern for Democrats if Republicans nominate a candidate who could claim the vast middle of the electorate -- a social moderate such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, or a candidate with a long history of reaching out to independents such as Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"Lots of people say, 'I want a Democrat,' but when they see the particulars, they say, 'I don't want that Democrat,'" said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. "The thing that's amazing about the Democrats is that they could still snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. The major Democrats are all now well to the left of the median voter."
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., touched on this concern Sunday on ABC's "This Week." He is the only Democratic presidential candidate to have voted in favor of continuing funding for the war last month.