The leading Democratic presidential candidates exchanged sharp words Tuesday night at a forum focusing on issues important to American workers sponsored by the AFL-CIO at Chicago's Soldier Field.
Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards D-N.C., had their sights on the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who matched her rivals' attacks with wit and forcefulness.
Obama and Edwards were much more fiery than they have been in past debates, with Edwards leveling perhaps the 90-minute forum's sharpest attack.
Answering a question about NAFTA, the 1993 trade agreement signed by Clinton's husband former President Bill Clinton, Edwards said NAFTA was negotiated by Washington insiders and that "you will never see a picture of me on the front of Fortune magazine saying "I am the candidate that big corporate America is betting on'" -- a blunt jab at Clinton who recently donned the cover of Fortune.
In another shot at Clinton, hometown candidate Obama said "you've got to have a president in the White House who is not simply subject to the whims of corporate lobbyists," a reference to remarks Clinton made over the weekend in which she defended taking money from Washington lobbyists. "I do not have federal registered lobbyists bundling for me, just like I don't take PAC money," the Illinois legislator later added. "And the reason that's important is because the people in this stadium need to know who we're going to fight for."
Clinton's response to her rivals' jabs was carefully constructed and very strong. "The other campaigns have been using my name a lot, " said the former first lady. "For 15 years, I've stood up against the right-wing machine. And I've come out stronger. So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl," she said to applause from some of the 17,000 union members and family on hand.
Obama came under harsh assault from Clinton and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd for saying last week that he would go after al Qaeda targets in Pakistan if the country would not act against the terrorists. "You can think big but remember you shouldn't always say everything you think when you're running for president because it could have consequences across the world and we don't need that right now," Clinton said. Dodd echoed Clinton's criticism.
Obama responded by pointing out that he was opposed to the Iraq war from the start and that Clinton, Dodd, Edwards and former Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, voted to authorize the war. "I find it amusing, that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism," said Obama.
On trade, Clinton said she favored broad reform and called for stringent labor and environmental standards, enforcing existing trade agreements, and investing in new energy. Clinton, Obama and Edwards have all criticized NAFTA in the past but all stopped short of calling for its repeal during the debate. Obama, however, pledged to amend the agreement if elected president.
The Democrats discussed concerns over China's threat to the US. "There was a myth when I was growing up in Cleveland that if you dig a hole deep enough, you'll get to China," Rep. Dennis Kucinich D-Ohio said. "We're there. And we need to have a president who understands that." Clinton pointed to the recent Chinese pet food and toy recalls saying that it's not acceptable for Americans to be getting bad products from China.
Most of the candidates agreed that the US should spend less money on the Iraq war and more money on the nation's infrastructure in light of last week's tragic events in Minnesota. "We need to have a better infrastructure in order to protect us," Clinton said.
"These guys, Republicans, have been irresponsible about our infrastructure, our security, and the safety of this country," said Biden who stood out among second tier candidates with his forceful pro-labor rhetoric.
"The war in Iraq is not the only war this president has waged," Biden later remarked. "He has waged a reckless war on labor's house -- the house that built the middle-class and the house that built our neighborhoods."
Biden did not concede a single inch to his opponents on the question of which candidate would be Big Labor's strongest ally as president. "For 34 years, I've walked with you in picket lines. Twenty-five years ago, with Reverend Jackson, he and I walked on picket lines together," Biden said.
"And the fact of the matter is, it's not where you've been the last two years. Where were you the six years you were in the Senate? How many picket lines did you walk on? How many times -- look at our records. Look at our records," he said.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson also participated in the forum which was moderated by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. The AFL-CIO's has yet to decide on an endorsement timetable.