- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) — The nine Democratic presidential contenders railed against President Bush’s policies on jobs, education and corporate accountability as they courted an AFL-CIO endorsement.

Divisions among the candidates on foreign trade and its impact on workers were evident at yesterday’s forum.

“This is personal for me,” said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who mentioned his union brother and retired letter-carrier mother in a direct appeal to the 2,000 rank-and-file members at an AFL-CIO-sponsored forum.

Crucial to union workers who typically vote for Democrats have been free-trade agreements that proponents argue expand the market for American-made goods and foes complain send U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas.

All nine candidates used questions about trade, health care, pensions and education for broader attacks of Mr. Bush’s record.

Several of the Democrats promised to oppose any expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“If it were before me today, I would vote against it because it doesn’t have environmental or labor standards in it,” said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who did vote for NAFTA. “If we’re going to create jobs, the first thing we have to do is make sure George W. Bush loses his.”

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, whose introduction garnered the loudest applause, reminded the audience that he led the congressional fight against trade agreements.

“I appreciate the position that some take here, and I appreciate what they’re saying, but I’d just say one thing to you: Check our record; check who was there when the fat was in the fire,” the Missourian said.

Two candidates indicated their support for expansion of NAFTA.

“The United States does not have the choice to become a protectionist nation,” said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. “We are the leader of the world economy. Leading that economy carries with it certain responsibilities.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut also said he probably would support expansion.

“Let’s remember, with all respect, that support of free trade and fair trade was a basic part of the Clinton-Gore economic record,” said Mr. Lieberman, who drew boos from some in the audience when he expressed support for school vouchers.

Last year, Mr. Lieberman joined Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards in voting to grant Mr. Bush “fast track” authority, requiring Congress to vote up or down on trade agreements without making changes.

Mr. Gephardt, who was gambling his presidential hopes on the support of organized labor, had the most at stake last night in his effort to secure an overall AFL-CIO endorsement.

Union officials are meeting this week in part to determine whether Mr. Gephardt, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, can secure enough endorsements from individual unions to win the elusive AFL-CIO prize.

The federation has made only two endorsements in presidential election primaries — for Al Gore in 2000 and for Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

Labor leaders say Mr. Gephardt is the only current candidate with a chance to join that list, even as they caution the labor group might make no endorsement. The AFL-CIO may call for another meeting this fall, giving them more time to gauge support.

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