In Iowa, Democratic 2008 candidates court activists

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DES MOINES, Iowa, Nov 11 (Reuters) Six Democratic presidential contenders wooed Iowans at a raucous fund-raising dinner, with Barack Obama and John Edwards taking veiled shots at front-runner Hillary Clinton on a night filled with dueling cheers and red-meat rhetoric.

Less than two months before Iowa kicks off the battle for the party presidential nomination, more than 9,000 Democratic activists jammed an auditorium in Des Moines for what amounted to a political pep rally.

Obama, an Illinois senator, and Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate, never mentioned Clinton by name but made clear their criticisms yesterday that she took money from lobbyists and ducked tough questions.

''Not answering questions because we're afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do,'' Obama said. ''Triangulating, and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt and Rudy might say about us, just won't do.'' Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are top contenders for the Republican nomination in the November 2008 election.

Edwards has been the most aggressive in attacking Clinton in recent weeks. ''It is time for us as a party to stand up with some backbone and some strength,'' he said. ''We do not believe in allowing lobbyists to write the laws of the United States of America.'' Clinton, a New York senator who leads national opinion polls but is in a tight race in Iowa with Obama and Edwards, said she was experienced and ready to stand up to attacks.

''It's gonna get a little hotter out there, but it's fine with me,'' she said. ''I have a little experience in standing up to fight for what I believe is right.'' The dinner gave the Democratic candidates a chance to show their organizational muscle, with the campaigns competing in everything from coordinated cheers to the number of signs lining the auditorium's public walkways.

BATTLE OF CHEERS Obama's raucous supporters dominated the cheering battle, with yell leaders in each of his seating sections coordinating choruses of ''Fired Up'' and ''Ready to Go'' -- the call-and-response lines he often uses to close his rallies.

Supporters of Obama and Clinton made up more than half of the crowd, and Edwards also brought a big contingent. They were easy to spot -- Clinton's backers wore yellow T-shirts, Obama's red and Edwards' white.

Each candidate entered the darkened arena in a white spotlight and walked through the crowd to the podium in the center of the floor, giving the event the feel of a prize fight.

Obama's campaign amplified the image with a boxing-like introduction from an exaggerated ringside announcer. ''And now, from our neighboring state of Illinois, a 6-2 force for change, Barack Obama!'' Edwards, who held a pre-dinner rally featuring bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, set up a huge video screen on a corner outside the auditorium that showed clips and quotes.

Obama appeared before the dinner at a rally with 3,000 supporters, and then joined his wife, Michelle, in leading a parade of backers through the street to the auditorium.

Supporters of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has called for withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq in 2009, carried banners that read ''2013'' -- a reference to the refusal of the other top contenders to commit to having troops out by that year.

''American needs to become not the policeman of the world but the conscience of the world,'' Richardson said.

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, who has proposed partitioning Iraq into three regions, said he was the only candidate with a plan for that country's future.

Connecticut Sen Chris Dodd promised the crowd that if he was president ''You will get your Constitution back. No more Guantanamos.'' REUTERS GL ND1236

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