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Democrats court labor backing

Rivals debate trade, terror at Ill. forum

Democratic presidential candidates (from left) Governor Bill Richardson, Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, former senator John Edwards, and US Representative Dennis Kucinich before yesterday's forum in Chicago. Democratic presidential candidates (from left) Governor Bill Richardson, Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, former senator John Edwards, and US Representative Dennis Kucinich before yesterday's forum in Chicago. (JOHN GRESS/REUTERS)

CHICAGO -- Democratic presidential candidates clashed frequently last night on trade, terrorism, and Washington lobbyists, turning a forum meant to address labor union issues into a session filled with attacks and counterattacks on foreign policy and campaign finance.

The seven Democrats all promised to protect worker rights during the forum, sponsored by the AFL-CIO at the famed Soldier Field stadium and attended by 17,000 raucous union members.

But several of the candidates used the questions -- whether about China or the North American Free Trade Agreement -- to turn on each other.

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York criticized her closest competitor in the polls, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, for saying he would be prepared to send US troops to Pakistan to dismantle terrorists cells if the nation's president, Pervez Musharaff, did not do so himself.

"I do not believe people running for president should engage in hypotheticals," Clinton said. Even if a president is considering action in Pakistan, "I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that, and to destabilize the Musharraf regime which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with Al Qaeda and Taliban.

"And remember: Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The last thing we want is to have Al Qaeda-like followers in charge of Pakistan and having access to nuclear weapons," Clinton added.

Obama defended himself with a sharp counterattack, reminding antiwar Democratic primary voters that Clinton voted to authorize force in Iraq, while he had opposed the war from the start.

"I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize . . . the biggest foreign policy disaster of our generation are now criticizing me for making sure we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield," Obama said, repeating his view that the United States needs to focus on winning the war in Afghanistan.

Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd noted that he himself had made a mistake in voting for the Iraq war resolution, an issue Obama has used to distinguish himself from much of the rest of the Democratic field. Obama, Dodd said, should acknowledge he made a mistake in threatening to go "unilaterally" into Pakistan to capture Al Qaeda operatives.

"If you're making a mistake today, you ought to stand up and say so," Dodd said.

Clinton chided Obama further: "You can think big, but remember you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president because it has consequences across the world. And we don't need that right now."

In turn, Clinton was also targeted on campaign finance by several of her primary foes, who referred derisively to her willingness to take campaign cash from Washington lobbyists. Clinton, in a previous candidate forum, said she is not influenced by Washington lobbyists who contribute to her campaign.

Asked about rebuilding the country's infrastructure -- and later, about whether to scrap NAFTA or amend it -- former senator John Edwards of North Carolina took the opportunity to criticize Clinton in his answer. NAFTA, he said, "was negotiated by Washington insiders" -- a reference to the lobbyists and to Clinton's eight years as first lady with President Bill Clinton, who signed NAFTA into law.

"My belief is we don't want to replace one group of insiders with another group of insiders," Edwards said.

Clinton, given a chance to answer her primary foes directly, looked momentarily speechless.

"I'm just taking it all in," Clinton said. "I've noticed in the past few days, a lot of the other campaigns have been using my name a lot."

But "I don't want to fight with the Democrats," Clinton added. "I want a united Democratic Party that will stand against the Republicans."

On labor matters, the seven Democrats -- which also included Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico -- competed to persuade the union members each was the most worker-friendly.

Kucinich -- describing himself to much laughter as the "Seabiscuit of this campaign" because of his low showing in public opinion polls -- was alone in vowing to eliminate NAFTA.

The other candidates pledged to amend the trade pact with Mexico and Canada to provide greater US worker protection.

Richardson won enthusiastic applause when he vowed to "get rid of all the union-busting attorneys at the Department of Labor and OSHA and all our agencies."

Biden bemoaned the nation's financial reliance on China, blaming the high cost of the Iraq war for the nearly $1 trillion in US debt China owns.

"The fact of the matter is, they hold the mortgage on our house," Biden said.

The questions posed by union members to the candidates reflected the anxieties and anger of organized labor over factory closings, lost benefits, and diminishing health coverage. One man on crutches broke into tears, saying his employer went bankrupt and cut his pension and healthcare and he couldn't care for his wife of 35 years. He got one of the strongest ovations of the night when he asked how the candidates would fix this broken system.

An endorsement from the 55-union AFL-CIO is an enormous coup for a candidate. While union membership has declined nationwide in recent years, the unions follow up their verbal blessings with on-the-ground assistance manning phone banks, mobilizing union households, and getting out the vote on election day.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said both the umbrella group and its individual unions wanted to spend time evaluating the Democratic candidates -- all of whom, other labor officials said, had strong records on worker issues -- before making a decision.

The accelerated primary season puts pressure on many interest groups to make an endorsement early to maximize their impact. But Sweeney, recalling earlier elections, when the union federation endorsed former governor Howard Dean of Vermont and former representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Sweeney said the union wants to take its time this year.

"This time they want to make sure, hopefully, they're endorsing the winner," Sweeney said in an interview before the presidential forum.

While only 12 percent of the public and private sector US workforce are members of unions, the AFL-CIO was key in electing Democrats in 2006, said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director. Fully 76 percent of AFL-CIO union members voted for the union-endorsed candidate, she said, providing critical support to 525 AFL-CIO endorsed candidates in 32 states last year.

"The AFL-CIO program is the biggest political program in the country," she said. "Nobody talks to as many voters."