The Note: Aiming for the Top

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It's a dangerous time to be a frontrunner. There's former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who wants us to know that he loves children (though sometimes, perhaps, he's not nuts about his own). There's former governor Mitt Romney, whose ride to Ames aboard the Mitt Mobile will be quite bumpy if Sen. Sam Brownback has anything to do with it (not that Mitt's making the trip any easier for himself). Former senator Fred Thompson doesn't even need to become a candidate to draw heat.

And there's Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., whose defense of lobbyists (they're people too!) has earned her the double-team of Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards (not to mention the pressure from the labor movement). Obama, D-Ill., and Edwards, D-N.C., are joining forces -- sort of -- to make Clinton's decision to continue to accept lobbyists' donations (her message out of YearlyKos) as famous as they can.

They both see this as a defining issue, with clear lines of demarcation, and it will be among their messages when the Democratic presidential candidates gather again in Chicago tonight -- this time for a labor forum at 7 pm ET at Soldier Field. (17,000 tickets? Will it be the first presidential debate to feature the wave?) It's hard to imagine lobbyists' contributions becoming the overriding issue in a campaign where no one is seriously alleging corruption. But the Clinton camp knows that this figures be a tough year to be the establishment candidate (a stubborn fact that shines through all of those spin-heavy campaign memos).

The issue is fundamental to both Obama's freshness and Edwards' populism. "This campaign is going to come down to whether you believe that it's enough just to get somebody other than George Bush in the White House to fix what ails Washington, or do you think we need to set a fundamentally new course," Obama told the AP's Mike Glover yesterday.

Edwards yesterday linked the influence of lobbyists with his call for rethinking trade agreements (up to and including NAFTA, which was championed by Sen. Clinton's husband). He's trying to woo labor leaders who appear unlikely to make national-level endorsements in 2008, The Washington Post's Dan Balz reports. "His tough rhetoric was the latest effort aimed at persuading the leaders of organized labor to support his presidential candidacy," Balz writes. "For Edwards, who will be at a significant financial disadvantage against both Clinton and Obama, the support of unions could give him organizational resources that he would not otherwise have at his disposal."

At Soldier Field, Clinton in particular may have to move further away from free trade to win union support, Bloomberg's Kim Chipman and Nicholas Johnston report. Says Teamsters president James Hoffa, "Obama's not talking about it and Hillary isn't. . . . I'd like to see Hillary walk picket lines."

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