At a stage in the presidential campaign that typically consists largely of trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, fundraisers, and policy rollouts, Democratic hopefuls are spending growing amounts of time rubbing elbows not with voters on the trail but with each other at interest-group showcases.
This week's event with union members in Chicago was the latest in a proliferation of candidate forums hosted by key Democratic constituencies from African-Americans to gays and lesbians to abortion-rights activists. The forums are increasingly shaping the schedule and rhythm of the campaign: Next week alone, candidates could wind up attending as many as five more.
To some extent, the ballooning number of forums reflects - perhaps perpetuates - the field's competitiveness.
Given there are nine Demo-crats in the race, and no outright front-runner, candidates can't afford to skip any opportunity to woo supporters, even as they struggle to stand out among a crowded lineup of contenders.
But it also highlights the growing power of interest groups in electoral politics. As political parties grow weaker under new campaign-finance laws, and as activist organizations draw new strength from the Internet, interest groups are playing a more important role in the political process, offering candidates a potentially critical form of organizational support, and an efficient means of getting their message out to particular constituencies.
"Interest groups have become more important over time," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. "Candidates are getting a lot of bang for their buck by going to these groups and talking to them and hopefully winning some converts."
Both parties rely on interest groups to motivate and turn out base supporters in elections. But analysts agree these organizations have come to play a larger role with Democrats, particularly as the Christian Coalition - formerly one of the GOP's most prominent factions - has declined in strength in recent years.
The dynamic may be further exacerbated for Democrats this year because they are facing a competitive primary battle, whereas President Bush is unopposed for the nomination. Although most Democratic groups are likely to wait for the general election to throw their strength behind a candidate, some may exercise their clout in the primary battle. If the AFL-CIO endorses Rep. Richard Gephardt, for example, it could provide a significant boost to his candidacy and alter the shape of the race.
Moreover, even organizations that don't endorse a primary candidate may use the competitiveness of the field to demand attention - and promises - from all the Democratic contenders. When Congressman Gephardt, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman recently skipped an NAACP forum, the group's president Kweisi Mfume publicly excoriated them, forcing all three to make a hasty trip to the conference the next day to apologize.
Making measured promises
In many cases, attending the forums may be a defensive move as much as an offensive one. While only a few groups - such as organized labor - may have the ability to mobilize a significant portion of the primary electorate, "in a close election, why go out of your way to snub [anyone]?" says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University.
Still, the parade of forums presents Democrats with a number of challenges.
Logistically, it can wreak havoc with candidates' schedules, forcing them to spend time traveling and preparing.
While most say the forums offer little chance for coherent dialogue, candidates clearly feel significant pressure to attend - particularly if others are going.
"It's something you have to do out of deference to the folks who are important in our party and important in the process," says David Axelrod, an adviser to Sen. John Edwards. "But it's not a cost-free thing."
The forums present a political test as well: Contenders must walk a delicate line of attempting to court whatever group they're appearing before without seeming to pander or make commitments that move them too far to the left.
"Candidates want to try to say as many things as possible to please these groups, to get the nomination. And yet on the other hand, they don't want to move so far to the left or right that they are unelectable in the general election," says Professor Mayer.
Sometimes, the groups' interests can even conflict. For example, many of the Democrats promising to create more jobs at the AFL-CIO forum this week had also spent time recently promising better environmental policies to the Sierra Club.
One question is whether groups will ultimately be motivated more by pragmatism or ideology - whether they will back the candidate they believe has the best chance of beating Mr. Bush, or the candidate who best supports their particular agenda (a factor that may determine whether Gephardt gets the AFL-CIO nod).
If the range of Democratic constituencies can put aside some of the specifics of their individual agendas and focus instead on broader themes that unite them, they can be a powerful, vitalizing force for the party, says Eric Hauser, a Democratic strategist who worked on former Sen. Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in 2000.
"They all have something in common, which is advancing public values," he says. But if the forums become a test of where candidates stand on specific issues such as abortion or the environment, then they will have "a negative effect."