More than 800 people crowded into the ballroom at the Center City Sheraton on Sept. 5, all of them seemingly restless with anticipation. When Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) finally entered the room — after a litany of speakers, including U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13) and State Sen. Connie Williams (D-District 17), touted her presidential caliber — those gathered let out a collective, high-pitched cheer.
The crowd was comprised mostly of professional women of voting age, even some retirees, who paid $100 apiece to attend the rally and fundraiser.
"Women are going to make Hillary Clinton the first woman president and change the direction of this country," said Ellen Malcolm, founder of Emily's List, an organization that raises money for pro-choice women candidates.
The noise at the rally — and the buttons, signs, speeches and, of course, the many hurrahs — contrasted sharply with the overall quiet, behind-the-scenes flavor that has defined the campaign in the Philadelphia region. Appearances by the major candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for president have been relatively few and far between.
It's not hard to figure out why.
The hopefuls are busy barnstorming across New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and other primary states that will most probably determine who gets to represent the party on the ticket in November. Pennsylvania's primary is set for April 22.
"As a candidate, when you have those tremendous demands on your time, you really don't have time to spend in Pennsylvania," said Alan Kessler, Pennsylvania state finance chair for the Clinton campaign and a partner at a Center City law firm.
That's going to change somewhat, especially since a Democratic presidential debate is slated for Philadelphia at the end of October. But, on the whole, Philadelphia's role has been to serve as a cash cow for campaigners to spend in other states.
Of course, it will be a far different story a year from now, in the thick of the general election.
So far, Pennsylvanians have donated more than $5 million to presidential candidates from both major parties, the ninth largest sum contributed by any state.
Certainly, throughout 2007 and even earlier, campaigners have been busy courting political insiders and longtime donors. While individuals can only give $2,300 a year, supporters with extensive social networks and political connections have the ability to organize fundraisers and steer dozens of other potential donors to the candidate of their choice. In exchange, they get far better access to a candidate than the average voter.
Democrats are fully confident that they'll take back the White House: Democratic presidential candidates have raised a total of $177 million, as compared to $118 million by Republican candidates. In this environment, Clinton appears, at least anecdotally, to be the candidate of choice for a plurality of Jewish Democratic insiders in the area.
The other so-called first-tier candidates include Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"Why am I backing Hillary? Fundamentally, she's the class of the field. This is a great field, but she's the best. She has deep experience, worldwide respect and is absolutely presidential in all ways," said Mark Aronchick, a Center City lawyer who serves as the state finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and who helped organize a Clinton fundraiser at the Main Line home of attorney Richard Schiffrin that netted $670,000.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell attended the event, although he hasn't yet endorsed anyone.
"We cannot afford to lose another national campaign," said Aronchick. "And Israel has no better friend. You don't even have to discuss that anymore. We know that we can count on her. I have found that this is a 'no-brainer.' "
Obama has also shown that he's serious about courting Jewish votes and dollars.
Petter Buttenweiser, a retired local educator who serves on Obama's national finance committee and helped plan fundraisers here in February and May, thinks that the freshman senator has presented the clearest alternative to the foreign policy of President George W. Bush.
"I don't think President Bush has done Israel any favors by causing instability right in the heart of the Middle East," he stated. "I think Obama would have avoided Iraq. He's said we ought to pay more attention to what's going on in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I just think that the Bush administration has set us back decades. I think they've been terrible domestically," he continued. "I think the Democrats will do a much better job on all these things. I hope it's Obama, but not to the exclusion of the others."
Edwards' strategy has been to challenge the two front-runners from the left, presenting a more populist message on trade policy and offering the first detailed universal health plan.
State Rep. Daylin Leach (D-District 149) is planning a Sept. 24 fundraiser for Edwards to be held at the offices of Philadelphia attorney Daniel Berger.
"One of the things I've liked best about him was that he talks about issues involving poverty, which the Democratic Party has shied away from," said Leach.
"I also think he's a great candidate. You don't get to implement great policies unless you can win an election. In the past, we've nominated candidates that have had trouble connecting with people," he continued.
While Berger is organizing the event, he's also raising funds for other candidates.
"We need anybody but a Republican," said Berger, a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in the city. "It's offensive the way in which 9/11 was exploited for security reasons as a cover to establish a national security state in this country."
Next Week: The Republican front-runners