Sunday, August 5, 2007

CHICAGO — A presidential forum hosted by liberal bloggers drew sharp exchanges yesterday when John Edwards challenged his rivals to stop taking donations from lobbyists.

“We need a transparent government,” said the former senator from North Carolina, a favorite among those attending the Yearly Kos convention. “Why don’t we start today reforming the Democratic Party by all of us committing: no more, from this day forward, not a dime from the Washington lobbyists.”

The 1,400 people in the ballroom leapt to their feet for a sustained ovation. Later, Mr. Edwards said voters “know who has the power in Washington, D.C., and they know it’s not them.”

Asked whether she would take lobbyists’ money, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said, “I will.” She defended lobbyists as representing “real Americans” such as nurses, social workers and corporations “that employ a lot of people.”

“I don’t think, based on my 35 years in fighting for what I believe in, anybody seriously believes I am going to be influenced by a lobbyist or a particular interest group,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who like Mr. Edwards said he does not take money from federal lobbyists, pointed at Mrs. Clinton, his top rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I disagree with the notion that lobbyists don’t have disproportionate influence,” he said. “Now Hillary, you were talking earlier about the [health care] efforts you made back in 1993. Well, you can’t tell me that that money did not have a difference. They are not spending that just because they are contributing to the public interest. They have an agenda.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called it “silly” to refuse lobbyist money and told bloggers that the candidates are “sucking up to you … [with] slogans that get you cheering.”

The candidates took questions from bloggers like McJoan and John Pontificator, who asked whether they would hire an official White House blogger. (They all would.)

Many attendees — dubbed Kossacks after Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas — were pleased with the hopefuls, who all promised that if elected, they would close the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ban torture and end illegal spying.

“This is one impressive group of candidates,” wrote “Prodigal” in a comment on Daily Kos. “You can almost feel the party shifting leftward.”

Mr. Moulitsas said conservatives who label Kossacks as radicals are mistaken. “I am very confident that right now in this moment in time we are in the mainstream,” he said.

It was a crucial event for Mrs. Clinton, who consistently polls much lower among the liberal bloggers who comprise the “netroots” than her national front-runner status would suggest.

She thanked bloggers for keeping politicians “a little sharper,” adding, “I actually read blogs.”

In a smaller pre-forum session, Mrs. Clinton put the crowd at ease by joking when her microphone failed that it was part of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

It was a friendly crowd for Mr. Obama, who has lived in Chicago for two decades, and who was treated twice to a round of “Happy Birthday” for turning 46 yesterday.

On Iraq, some present said they are irritated with talk of “political reality” that prevents Congress from ending the war.

Mrs. Clinton said Democrats are trying to “keep the pressure on.”

“If President Bush doesn’t get us out before he leaves, I will as soon as I am inaugurated,” she added, a stump line that draws big cheers elsewhere but generated tepid applause here.

Mr. Richardson said he has a “one-point plan” for Iraq: “Get out.”

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio prompted an ovation when he pushed his bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney and said Congress “[has] the power to tell the president to stop it now, and if he doesn’t then he ought to be impeached.”

The candidates were in their element, tossing out red meat and self-deprecating jokes. When pressed by an aide to wrap up his question-and-answer session, Mr. Richardson said: “I’m at 13 percent; I’ll take a few more.”

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut capitalized on his recent on-air spat with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in defense of the convention, and added: “Thank the Lord there is a Daily Kos.”

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