Edwards fails to score in debate

This was supposed to be John Edwards’ chance to shine, with 17,000 union members eager to be impressed, especially by a presidential candidate who has been actively courting labor support ever since his failed vice presidential run in 2004.

But Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama used the AFL-CIO’s Democratic presidential forum Tuesday night at Soldier Field to fend off their primary rivals hoping to move up in the polls, impress organized labor and maybe land an early primary endorsement.

“I thought the candidates left the forum in exactly the same condition they came in,” said Marick Masters, professor of business administration with the Katz Business School at the University of Pittsburgh. “Clinton and Obama are still the front-runners. The race is still between them. I don’t think Edwards got in any major hits in this stadium.”

Edwards has long staked his campaign on the labor vote, telling the crowd that he has walked 200 picket lines in the past two years. At stake is a possible primary endorsement from the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, or its individual member unions.

Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 candidacy got a major boost from the International Association of Firefighters, whose endorsement kept him in the race after favorites Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt flamed out in the early primaries.

Edwards and the others shot barbs at Clinton in front of a raucous crowd, hoping to score points. “You’ll never see me on the cover of Fortune magazine,” said Edwards, digging at Clinton, who was featured recently on the business publication’s front.

Obama said U.S. trade agreements have tilted against workers because “corporate lobbyists” have had too much influence, a theme he has developed in recent days, especially when alluding to Clinton.

Clinton mostly ignored her rivals, instead touting her ability to challenge Republicans.

“For 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine. And I’ve come out stronger,” Clinton said to applause from the crowd. “If you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I’m your girl.”

Democratic analyst Donna Brazile said Clinton did a great impression of playing Muhammad Ali during the debate, dodging and weaving as her rivals threw punches.

“The other candidates are trying to take a piece of her but failed,” Brazile said. “She can avoid the punches and still land some blows. That speaks volumes on why she’s the front-runner.”

Obama also took hits at the 90-minute debate. Sen. Chris Dodd chided him for recently suggesting he would strike terrorist targets in Pakistan if he had information about the location of al-Qaida terrorists, even without the permission of President Pervez Musharraf.

“General Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson,” Dodd said, but he is an ally in the war on terror.

Clinton joined in, saying to Obama, “You should not always say everything you think when you are running for president, because it can have consequences.”

Obama shot back: “I find it amusing that those who voted to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me.”

Clinton and Obama played up their Chicago roots to the local crowd. The first thing Obama mentioned was that they were in the “home of the NFC champions, the Chicago Bears.”

Clinton said her dad, a lifelong Bears fan, would consider that “any of his children would be on the 10-yard line in Soldier Field is an extraordinary accomplishment.”

The wildest cheers were for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s applause lines aimed at the union crowd.

While all the candidates leveled criticism at the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which was enacted by former President Clinton, Kucinich said repeatedly he would withdraw from it and the World Trade Organization.

“No one on stage could give you a straight answer, because they don’t intend to scrap it,” he said.

The true winner at the forum was the AFL-CIO, said Robert Bruno, a professor at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was originally scheduled for a downtown Chicago convention center but was moved to Soldier Field to handle the number of union families that wanted to attend.

Union families filled the stadium’s north end zone all the way out to the stage at the 10-yard line, wearing colorful union T-shirts and chanting their union’s names before the forum.

“I’m not aware of any political debate in the modern era that was in front of this many members of the same constituency,” Bruno said. That all candidates but former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel attended “shows that there’s still a lot of political relevance in the American labor movement. That’s a pretty interesting statement to be making after all these years of centrist Democratic policies and moderate Democratic candidates.”

While no one likely will garner an early primary endorsement from the AFL-CIO — the executive council was scheduled to meet Wednesday — endorsements from individual unions are prized plums that could break candidates out of the pack. Many unions plan to endorse after Labor Day if the AFL-CIO doesn’t jump into the race.

Unions are important for the money and the foot soldiers they can provide candidates.

In the 2004 elections, organized labor gave $53.6 million to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That amount increased to $66 million for the 2006 elections and is expected to increase again for 2008.

The AFL-CIO — which has 55 member unions and represents 10 million workers — said in 2006 that it knocked on 8.25 million doors for union candidates, made 30 million telephone calls, distributed 14 million fliers and sent out 20 million pieces of mail in its successful efforts to help Democrats take the House and Senate.

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Jesse J. Holland covers labor and politics for The Associated Press.