WASHINGTON – In front of a loyal audience of union workers, Democrats took the opportunity Monday to bash President Bush one day after he requested Congress provide $87 billion to fund the war on terror next year.
At the Service Employees International Union (search) convention on Monday, eight of the nine Democratic candidates pitched themselves to the group. Sen. Bob Graham (search) of Florida did not make it.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), who is feverishly seeking the group's endorsement, attacked the president for misleading the nation into war with Iraq.
Kerry asserted that the president has been less than honest with Americans about the seriousness, the money and the commitment it will take to stabilize post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
"We have been misled, we have not been told the truth and we deserve a president of the United States who knows the meaning of the words 'last resort' and tells the American people the truth," Kerry said to a receptive labor gathering.
"The president didn't take the time to plan, he didn't lead, he didn't do the things necessary to do the long-term protecting of our troops and I think it is one of the most faulty, ill-advised, badly implemented policies that I have seen in years," Kerry told reporters afterward.
Kerry has been criticized for allegedly wanting to have it both ways, and according to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), for being a "waffler" when it comes to Iraq.
Kerry voted for the use of force against Iraq last year, but has since become a very harsh critic of the post-war reconstruction. Most of the Democrats have also taken this stance in large measure because of the lead taken by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who has become the front-runner in the polls and fund-raising in part because of his anti-war rhetoric.
Dean, too, lamented the cost of Iraqi reconstruction and used it to question the president's priorities.
"One hundred sixty billion dollars in Iraq, our budget deficit is going to be more than a half a trillion dollars, and we could insure easily every man, woman and child in the United States of America for that amount of money. Where are your priorities, Mr. President? Are they here with our people or are they somewhere else?" Dean said.
But minutes after leaving the stage, Dean told reporters that the United States should stay in Iraq, and predicted that the president's plan to seek international support now will not be well received worldwide because they were insulted by the president's reluctance to seek allied support earlier.
"I think that the president has personally poisoned his relationship with most of our allies by his contemptuous treatment of them on the way into Iraq," he said.
Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) echoed those sentiments, then laid responsibility for American casualties at the president's feet.
"It's not just the deaths. We got kids with their legs blown off, with their eyes blown out, who are heroes of this country and he is not getting us the help that we need. When I am president, I'll put the world back together to fight against all of these challenges that we face. He is not doing it and I will," Gephardt boomed.
Sen. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina never actually mentioned Iraq in any of his prepared remarks. Edwards, who announced Sunday that he will not seek re-election to his Senate seat so that he can concentrate on his presidential bid, did issue a statement the previous evening after the president spoke to condemn some of his actions.
The 1.5 million-member SEIU is the largest union in the AFL-CIO (search), which is planning to make a decision in the coming weeks on whether to endorse a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. SEIU is considering making its own endorsement, possibly as early as Wednesday.
The candidate working hardest for the AFL-CIO endorsement is Gephardt, but Dean and Kerry are making strong showings with SEIU, courting its leaders.
Gephardt has 12 union endorsements so far, and SEIU's backing would give him a major boost to the threshold he needs to cross — getting two-thirds of the AFL-CIO's membership behind him for an official endorsement.
But it was Dean who received the huge ovation at Monday's event, with the crowd repeatedly offering thunderous applause, much more so than for any other candidate.
Andy Stern, president of SEIU, said that his organization, with its large immigrant population and progressive ideals, would be the feather in the cap of any of the candidates. Stern said Dean needs to broaden his base of support beyond the white, upper-income backers. An SEIU endorsement would give him the diversity he seeks.
"Today, the powerful come to ask for help from the once powerless," Stern said to cheers, noting that his members are janitors, nursing home workers, home health care workers, hospital nurses and government employees.
Stern said Edwards asked him Sunday to delay an endorsement until he has a chance to show his stuff. Now that he is focused solely on the presidency, Edwards is confident it will gain momentum, Stern said the senator told him.
"He said, 'I'm here to stay. Give me a chance,"' Stern said.
Stern said SEIU would not endorse a candidate who had not proposed a comprehensive health insurance program to cover most Americans and show how it would be funded.
Brooke Gurley, a New Hampshire nurse, said she likes Dean's health care proposal. "Dean's has been working for six years," she said, noting the program instituted in Vermont when he was governor.
The labor movement, in general, is trying to make this election mostly about economic and job issues. On Monday, Kerry said the president has been unpatriotic because he has given tax cuts to the rich rather than trying to help the middle class.
The Bush administration argues that its tax cuts provide an economic stimulus that will help all, and has not been directed to any particular voting group or economic sector. Kerry accused Bush of having "a creed of greed," a reference to the Democrat's belief that the president has not done enough to curb corporate irresponsibility.
All nine Democrats were meeting Monday and Tuesday with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (search), the second-largest in the AFL-CIO and the most politically powerful. AFSCME spends more than any other union on politics.
After his AFSCME session, Joe Lieberman said he was disappointed that he was not among the top three contenders for the labor endorsements, saying he is the best candidate to beat Bush.
"I really urge them to hang back a little bit. Watch this develop," Lieberman said.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.