Candidates face one of the country's most popular Republican presidents
Democrats want someone who can beat George W Bush in 2004 - but are under no illusions about how tough that's going to be.
The party faithful got their first look at the nine Democratic candidates who have so far declared their candidacy, at the first presidential debate ahead of the 2004 primaries.
Debate moderator George Stephanopoulos bluntly laid out the challenge facing the Democrats.
"These eight men and one woman are vying for the opportunity to challenge one of history's most popular presidents," he said.
A poll by the ABC television channel and the Washington Post newspaper shows that George W Bush would win a landslide against any of the three leading Democratic contenders, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Representative Richard Gephardt and Senator John Kerry.
But President Bush is vulnerable, just as his father was, on domestic issues.
Almost half of Americans say they are worse off now than when President Bush took office, and half of those polled said that the president does not understand the problems of average Americans.
Healthcare and homeland security
The debate highlighted the differences among Democrats on how they should capitalise on the president's weaknesses, and over the US-led war on Iraq.
Republicans are watching... we should not have the bottom line tonight be that George Bush won because we were taking cheap shots at one another
Democratic presidential hopeful Reverend Al Sharpton
Representative Richard Gephardt laid out an ambitious plan to expand domestic healthcare coverage, and he would pay for it by rolling back President Bush's tax cuts.
His rivals praised him for raising the issue but criticised his plan.
Senator John Edwards said it took money out of the pockets of working people and put it in the pockets of corporations.
Senator Joe Lieberman said it was a throwback to big-spending Democratic ideas of the past.
Split over Iraq
Mr Lieberman, who polled best out of the Democratic hopefuls, also said during the debate: "No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defence."
The issue dominated the opening part of the debate.
Senator Lieberman said Mr Bush was right to go to war, however former Vermont Governor Howard Dean called it the wrong war at the wrong time, and community activist Reverend Al Sharpton also said the US could have disarmed Saddam Hussein through the United Nations.
A feud between the campaigns of Governor Howard Dean and Senator John Kerry also dominated proceedings.
Senator Kerry criticised Governor Dean over suggestions that the US might not always enjoy military superiority.
The exchange became so heated that the Reverend Al Sharpton stepped in and reminded them that the goal was to defeat President Bush.
"Republicans are watching," Mr Sharpton said, adding that "we should not have the bottom line tonight be that George Bush won because we were taking cheap shots at one another."
Picking a winner
Choosing a candidate who can beat George W Bush should be the number one priority of the Democratic party, said party consultant Kris Geddings.
A feud between the Dean and Kerry campaigns has enlivened proceedings
She and her husband Kevin produce TV commercials for the party's candidates.
"It's going to take somebody who can appeal not only to Democrats but to Independents as well," she said.
The nation's focus is shifting away from the war, she said, to largely domestic issues: the economy, healthcare and education.
Both the Geddings were impressed by Senator Bob Graham and Senator Lieberman but were disappointed by Senator John Kerry, who they had both considered the frontrunner.
"(Senator Kerry) seemed a little off his mark tonight," he said.
He sees the feud between Senator Kerry and Governor Dean as the opening salvo in the battle for New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary next January.
But he thinks that liberals from the north-east such as Senator Kerry and Governor Dean would have difficulty winning against President Bush.
To win critical southern support, he said it will take either a governor from the south, or a relatively conservative Democrat like Senator Lieberman.