Tempers flared and accusations flew last night as the Democratic presidential hopefuls sparred during their nastiest meeting yet — a debate for 15,000 AFL-CIO members in Chicago.
VIDEO: Democrats face off in Chicago
The candidates pledged to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), stand up for workers and expand health care, but their domestic proposals were overshadowed by testy exchanges.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York urged her rivals to get along early in the debate — advice they ignored as they attacked her and one another on stage at the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field.
“I’m here because I think we need to change America … not to get in fights with Democrats,” she said. “I want the Democrats to win, and I want a united Democratic Party that will stand against the Republicans.”
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina accused Mrs. Clinton of being too closely tied to special interests because she won’t refuse lobbyist donations and because she was the focus of a recent Fortune cover story “Business loves Hillary!”
“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,” said Mr. Edwards, who recently has been on the covers of Men’s Vogue and Esquire.
Mrs. Clinton stuttered and said she was “taking it all in” before she struck a general election tone and admonished her foes for fighting with each other.
“For 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine. And I’ve come out stronger,” she said, adding: “So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I’m your girl.”
The line got big cheers, but the contenders didn’t take long before getting back to hammering each other.
When Mr. Edwards told steelworker Steve Skvara to ask, “Who’s been with you in the crunch?” after a question on health care, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware pounced.
“It’s not where you’ve been the last two years. Where were you the six years you were in the Senate?” he asked Mr. Edwards, noting that he has walked picket lines for 35 years.
“Did you walk when it cost?” Mr. Biden asked. “That’s the measure of whether we’ll be with you when it’s tough, not when you’re running for president in the last two years.”
Mr. Edwards said he’s walked 200 picket lines and touted his record pushing minimum-wage increases in states in the two years since he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
“I was on a picket line on Saturday. I was on a picket line on Sunday,” he said.
The campaign did not immediately respond to a question on how many picket lines he walked during his term in the Senate.
Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut accused Sen. Barack Obama of being foolish for saying he would send troops to Pakistan to hunt down al Qaeda terrorists.
“Understand that while [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson, he may be the only thing that stands between us and having an Islamic fundamentalist state in that country,” Mr. Dodd said.
Mrs. Clinton added her two cents, saying Mr. Obama’s idea is a “very big mistake.”
She was booed when she said, “You shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world.”
Mr. Obama of Illinois took the opportunity to criticize his rivals for voting to authorize the Iraq war in 2002, saying, “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.”
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio was the only candidate to promise to scrap NAFTA if elected; the others said it should be revised to consider labor and environmental standards.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson told an Iraq vet who lost his job and health care he would create a “heroes health card” so veterans can get treated at more than just VA hospitals.
John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, said he considered the forum to be “one giant job interview with workers doing the interviewing.”
Two-thirds of the AFL-CIO’s members must be in favor of a candidate before the group will issue an endorsement. If the threshold isn’t met, smaller unions and state chapters can selectively back their own favorite.