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Obama, Clinton Openly Spar at AFL-CIO Forum

August 8, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Next, presidential politics played at a contact-sport venue. Margaret Warner has the highlights.

MARGARET WARNER: Three days after courting liberal bloggers, seven of the Democratic presidential candidates met again last night on an outdoor stage to woo a more traditional constituency, some 17,000 union members.

The forum, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, was intended to focus on issues dear to organized labor, like trade policy and health care. But the candidates were eager to resume their running arguments over foreign policy and the role of lobbyists. And the two leading in the national polls, New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, came under repeated fire.

Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd lit into Obama for saying last week that he’d take military action against al-Qaida figures hiding in Pakistan if Pakistan wouldn’t.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: Words mean things. We’re got to very careful about language that’s used in terms of the danger and harm it can do to our nation. I think it’s highly responsible — or irresponsible of people who are running for the presidency and seek that office to suggest we may be willing unilaterally to invade a nation here that we’re trying to get to be more cooperative with us in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama didn’t back down.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: 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. If we have actionable intelligence on al-Qaida operatives, including bin Laden, and President Musharraf cannot act, then we should. Now, I think that’s just common sense.

Clinton, Obama debate Pakistan

MARGARET WARNER: Moderator Keith Olbermann of MSNBC asked Senator Clinton to weigh in.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC Anchor: Senator Clinton, please give me your response to what we're hearing tonight.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Well, I do not believe people running for president should engage in hypotheticals. I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with al-Qaida and Taliban.

And, remember, Pakistan has nuclear weapons. The last thing we want is to have al-Qaida-like followers in charge of Pakistan and having access to nuclear weapons. So you can think big, but, remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it has consequences across the world.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I did not say that we would immediately go in unilaterally. What I said was that we have to work with Musharraf. We're debating the most important foreign policy issues that we face, and the American people have a right to know.

It is not just Washington insiders that are part of the debate that has to take place with respect to how we're going to shift our foreign policy.

Edwards challenges lobbyist ties

MARGARET WARNER: Former Senator John Edwards opened up another line attack against Clinton by repeating his challenge that she give up contributions from lobbyists.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: My belief is, we don't want to change one group of insiders for a different group of insiders. We should say: This game is over. The system is rigged in Washington, D.C. It is not working for you.

MARGARET WARNER: He and Obama returned to the theme in a heated exchange over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted under former President Bill Clinton, and unpopular with organized labor.

KEITH OLBERMANN: How would you fix it?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: We have to have a broad reform in how we approach trade. NAFTA's a piece of it, but it's not the only piece of it. I believe in smart trade -- I've said that for years -- pro-American trade, trade that has labor and environmental standards, that's not a race to the bottom, but tries to lift up not only American workers, but also workers around the world.

Kucinich supports NAFTA withdrawal

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was far more direct.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: In my first week in office, I will notify Mexico and Canada that the United States is withdrawing from NAFTA.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president of Canada, to try to amend NAFTA, because I think that we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now. And it should reflect the basic principle that our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street; it should also be good for Main Street.

And that does mean, by the way, that you've got to have a president in the White House who is not subject simply to the whims of corporate lobbyists. And that issue is going to be something that I think should be important throughout this campaign: Are we going to make certain that you have a voice in Washington and not just those who are paying the big money in Washington to have that opportunity to negotiate?

JOHN EDWARDS: NAFTA is a perfect example of the bigger problem. This deal was negotiated by Washington insiders, not by anybody in this stadium tonight.

I want everyone to hear my voice on this: The one thing you can count on is 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."

MARGARET WARNER: Clinton, who was featured on the cover of Fortune, responded.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I've noticed in the last few days that a lot of the other campaigns have been using my name a lot. But I'm here because I think we need to change America, and it's not to get in fights with Democrats. I want the Democrats to win. And I want a united Democratic Party that will stand against the Republicans. And I will say that, for 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine, and I've come out stronger. So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl.

Discussion of pensions, health care

MARGARET WARNER: The unions' health care concerns were finally put on the table by a retired steelworker whose family lost its insurance.

STEVE SKVARA, Retired Steelworker: Every day of my life, I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can't afford to pay for her health care. What's wrong with America? And what will you do to change it?

JOHN EDWARDS: You're a perfect example of exactly what's wrong with America, both on pension protection and on health care. I intend to be the president of the United States who walks onto the White House lawn and explains to America how important unions and organized labor is to the future and the economic security of this country.

The question is, who's been with you in the crunch? In the last few years, 200 times I have walked picket lines.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Joseph Biden moved to top that.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: In terms of walking the walk, let's make something clear here. For 34 years, I've walked with you in picket lines. The question is, did you walk when it cost? 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.

MARGARET WARNER: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson also took part. Only former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel did not.