CHICAGO – Democratic rivals accused Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of being too cozy with lobbyists and Wall Street Tuesday, but the party's presidential front-runner portrayed herself as a champion of working people and commonsense policies, drawing cheers from a crowd of union activists.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, running second to Clinton in most polls, leveled some of the criticism but was forced to defend his own recent statements on Pakistan during the 90-minute debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO at Chicago's Soldier Field.
"You will never see a picture of me on the front of Fortune magazine," said former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, a dig at Clinton, who recently was featured on the business publication's cover.
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, the New York senator and former first lady.
Clinton, who appeared content with her front-runner status, replied: "The other campaigns have been using my name a lot."
"For 15 years, I've stood up against the right-wing machine," she said, as many in the crowd cheered. "If you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."
Obama's turn in the bull's-eye came when Connecticut 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 helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me."
Dodd, Clinton, Edwards and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002. Obama, who was in the Illinois legislature at the time, spoke out against the invasion.
The seven candidates praised organized labor lavishly, seeming to jockey to portray themselves as the most committed to the cause.
Edwards, who especially is banking on strong support from labor, twice told the crowd of some 15,000 that he has walked 200 picket lines in the past two years. "Who was with you in crunch time?" he asked. "Who will stand with you when it really matters?"
The stadium crowd was raucous and loud at times, cheering some candidates and interrupting others.
At the debate's start, the candidates largely agreed that the nation should invest more money in infrastructure and less in the Iraq war, citing the Minneapolis bridge collapse as a symptom of neglect.
The candidates cast the matter as one of creating jobs as they addressed thousands of labor union activists, a constituency that could prove pivotal in deciding which contender emerges as the party's nominee.
"Putting our country back to work begins by cutting the funding for the war in Iraq," said Dodd, who added that $1 billion in domestic infrastructure spending would create 40,000 jobs. He said the United States is spending $12 billion a month in Iraq, although government figures have put it closer to $10 billion.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would find money to improve roads, bridges, water systems and other infrastructure by having Congress eliminate "the $23 billion they put forth for congressional earmarks," or special spending projects.
Several questions dealt with trade, a sensitive subject for union activists who argue that too many U.S. jobs have gone overseas.
Labor leaders often have criticized the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which was enacted by former President Clinton, the New York senator's husband.
Hillary Clinton defended the pact, saying the nation needs "broad reform" of trade. "NAFTA is a piece of it, but it's not the only piece," she said. Obama and Edwards also stopped short of saying NAFTA should be scrapped.
All the candidates were asked whether China is an adversary or ally. The U.S. has a $233 billion annual trade deficit with the economic giant.
Most of the candidates said they would take a tougher stand. "I do not want to eat bad food from China," Clinton said, alluding to recent incidents of tainted food imports.
Edwards reminded the audience of the 2 million lead-tainted toys from China that were recalled last week.
Several of the candidates said their hearts and prayers were with the six trapped coal miners in Utah.
Both Clinton, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and Obama alluded to the debate locale — Soldier Field where the Bears play football. Clinton said her father, a lifelong Bears fan, would marvel at the idea of one of his children standing on the 10-yard line. Obama defended his support for the renovation of the stadium and the jobs created.
Seven of the eight contenders shared a covered stage in 90-degree heat. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who did not complete the required AFL-CIO questionnaire, did not plan to attend.
The AFL-CIO's executive council will meet Wednesday to decide whether to begin the labor federation's endorsement process immediately or wait.
The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of labor unions, didn't endorse a candidate in the 2004 primary. Its rules say two-thirds of the AFL-CIO's individual unions must agree on a candidate before an endorsement, and that didn't happen.
If the executive council doesn't begin its endorsement process — the result most observers expect — individual unions will be free to endorse whoever they want.
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.
MSNBC televised the debate moderated by Keith Olbermann.