They came to hear Howard Dean.
But they got the message that matters from Arianna Huffington.
That's because, while the chairman of the Democratic National Committee delivered a tepid and predictable address to the Campaign for America's Future's "Take Back America" conference on Thursday, the columnist and author who not that many years ago identified as a Newt Gingrich conservative was the speaker who showed up with a road map for renewal of the Democratic Party.
Where Dean made no direct mention of the war in Iraq during a lengthy address to the morning plenary that kicked off the fullest day of the annual gathering of progressive activists, Huffington went to the heart of the matter.
"We cannot continue to ignore the debacle in Iraq if we are going to have any hope of [Democrats] ever again being a majority party," said Huffington, the conservative who came in from the cold and has recently lent her name and energy to the Huffington Post.
At a conference where the schedule was heavy with domestic-policy discussions but short on discourse regarding foreign policy, Huffington bluntly told the crowd, "We cannot have a solution on the domestic front without addressing what is happening in Iraq."
After a quick tour of the quagmire ("Ahmed Chalabi is the oil minister -- this is like something out of Saturday Night Live") and of the Bush Administration's steady pattern of misdeeds and missteps, Huffington asked the fundamental question of Congressional Democrats and party leaders: "Where is the oversight?"
"There is no oversight going on in this most corrupt and most immoral Congress that we have right now," she said, adding that, "I'm very troubled by the way our Democratic leaders go on television and sound like spineless Republicans." (Later in the day, at the one conference session that was devoted to foreign policy issues, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern recalled Dean's recent "now that we're there, we're there" comment regarding the "need" to remain in Iraq and then said, "That sounds like Rumsfeld to me.")
Noting that, in a recent television appearance, US Senator Hillary Clinton said she was not comfortable talking about developing an "exit strategy" to withdraw US troops from Iraq, Huffington said, "With respect to Senator Clinton, if you are not comfortable setting an exit strategy, please point us to someone who is."
Clinton is much discussed as a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. But Huffington drew some of the loudest applause of the conference when she said of the 2008 race, "I want a Democratic presidential candidate who can give a straight, unambiguous answer on Iraq."
It was deserved applause; if Democrats do not come to understand this message, they will doom themselves to an agonizing repetition of the electoral debacles of 2002 and 2004.
"There is no way in a time of war that you can be a majority party without having a policy position [that is distinct from the Republicans]," explained Huffington, who suggested that, instead of avoiding the debate about national security, Democrats need to turn the debate on its head.
"The Democratic leaders need to make it clear that these men running our foreign policy are dangerous," she said. "There is no way Democrats can win an election unless they make it clear that these Republicans are not making this country safer."