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House Democrats on the back shelf at convention
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U.S. House Rep. James Oberstar visited the Minnesota delegation at the Democratic Convention Wednesday. Here, he's shown conducting an interview with a French television station. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

Boston, Mass. — (AP) - In Washington, they're big dogs. But at the Democratic National Convention the party's House members can barely get a bone, relegated to early speaking slots with little television exposure and scant attention because of the single-minded focus on beating President Bush.

But House Democrats say they can buck the odds and win enough seats in November's election to be in charge again - and they hope to drum up some attention for their own races while the world's attention is on Boston.

"It is absolutely essential that John Kerry become president," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "But when he does, we want him to have a Democratic caucus in power ready to work with him to institute programs to get this country back on track." Pelosi would become the first female House speaker if her party takes over on Capitol Hill.

Republicans command a 228-206 majority in the current House, with one Democratic-leaning independent. Democrats hope to gain at least 11 seats to end a decade of Republican rule, and there are about three dozen competitive seats.

But when it came time to dole out the prime speaking spots for the convention, few House Democrats got a call. The main keynote speaker ended up being a Senate candidate who doesn't even hold national office yet, Barack Obama of Illinois.

It is absolutely essential that John Kerry become president. But when he does, we want him to have a Democratic caucus in power ready to work with him.
- House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi

And those House members who scored speaking slots at the convention spent most of their time talking up John Kerry, instead of their own election plans and attempts to take over the House.

"I have no doubt we're going to make John Kerry and John Edwards the next president and vice president of the United States," Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said to applause Tuesday at the convention.

He then added in what could almost be seen as an afterthought: "And when they report to work at the White House, I want them sending their policies, America's priorities, down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the first woman speaker of the House."

It's pretty clear that the House members aren't the stars here. Massachusetts delegates expecting to hear from New York Democrat Charlie Rangel went ballistic when actor Ben Affleck showed up ahead of him at the meeting, screaming and rushing the stage with cameras. When Rangel finally got to speak, he got a nice ovation but nothing near what Affleck got.

Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney got the treatment as well. As the Kennedys and their friends gathered in the Fairmont Copley Hotel's tony Oak Room bar, a bar guard refused to let Tierney in, growling: "There are no tables."

Tierney finally was saved by bystanders, who protested loudly, "He's a congressman!"

Still, House Democrats are working hard in Boston, talking with delegates and revving up their core supporters in caucus meetings. They say they're optimistic, despite not being the center of attention.

In an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted July 5-7, 47 percent of those asked said they would like to see Democrats in control of Congress, while 43 percent said Republicans. House Democrats say that tracks with polls showing Kerry leading or tied with President Bush and augurs success further down the ticket.

"A lot of people say that if Kerry and Edwards are doing well, it doesn't help you," Matsui said in an interview. "Well, yes it does, because the national mood that makes them do well makes us do well. It's not so much as they're carrying us. Obviously, the country's carrying them and that helps us."

And even with all of the focus on the national candidates, "I find that our good candidates, that they will find ways to get beyond the presidential race," Matsui added.

Many of the candidates in the House's targeted races aren't even in Boston, said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who as caucus vice chair is the fourth-ranking House Democrat.

"It was a deliberate decision for them to stay at home," Clyburn said. "All of this is distracting for people trying to win office, and as everyone knows, all politics starts at home. That's where they need to be."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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