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Democratic candidates try to woo blogging crowd

Times Staff Writer

The Democratic presidential candidates appeared together Saturday before a major gathering of the “net roots” -- online political activists who hope to remake American politics -- in a debate that produced a sharp exchange over donations from lobbyists.

Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton took barbs from two of her opponents and boos and hisses from some of the audience of 1,500 bloggers and Internet stalwarts at the second Yearly Kos Convention when she refused to reject contributions from individuals who lobby the federal government.

Clinton said she had to raise money to be competitive and that her 35 years of public service proved she would fight for ordinary Americans. “I have stayed true to my core principles,” Clinton said. “A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans” such as nurses, teachers and others who need a voice in the halls of government, she added.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards jumped on Clinton for that position in what was the sharpest exchange of the 90-minute debate in an auditorium at the sprawling McCormick Place Convention Center.

“I disagree with the notion that lobbyists don’t have disproportionate influence,” Obama said, arguing that Clinton could not get lawmakers to pass a healthcare reform measure she promoted when she was first lady because of massive opposition from pharmaceutical and insurance lobbyists. “You can’t tell me,” Obama said, “that money did not have an influence. You can’t tell me that money was for the public good. They have an interest.”

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Obama has pledged to disdain donations from federally registered lobbyists, while Edwards has staked out that position since he represented North Carolina in the Senate. Both trail Clinton in national polls.

To illustrate his point that lobbyists represent special interests rather than those of ordinary citizens, Edwards asked for a show of hands of how many in the room had a Washington lobbyist. Noting that only a handful in the audience raised their hands, he told the audience, “You are not represented by Washington lobbyists. We need to cut these people off.”

Clinton chose not to counterattack -- by raising questions about her opponents’ funding sources, for example -- or to offer a response when Edwards needled her as being too passive on pushing healthcare reform.

But two candidates who were not targeted by the barbs delivered counterpoints. Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich challenged the source of Edwards’ contributions, asking whether he would also call for a ban on fundraising “to also include Wall Street hedge funds.” Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel won laughter and nods of approval when he said: “All politicians walk in the mud ... because they all have to raise money.”

The seven candidates attending -- only Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was absent -- offered essentially the same long-range solution to the problem of special-interest political donations. All raised their hands to indicate they favored public financing of political campaigns. Clinton said such a change would take a constitutional amendment, which she would support as president.

Viewed by many Web activists as too centrist and compliant on the Iraq war, Clinton faced the most formidable task of the candidates at the debate. Informal online surveys on the Daily Kos website gave her a negative approval rating. Obama and Edwards have rated high on the Kos site surveys.

But the New York senator appeared to have picked up favor with the “Kossacks,” as some call themselves, before the convention’s opening Thursday.

First, her staff slammed conservative TV personality Bill O’Reilly for his attacks on Kos, which he called a “vicious, far-left website.” Then Clinton rearranged her schedule to make sure she could attend a smaller session with the Web activists before the debate, where she was greeted warmly by an audience of about 300. When the arrows on the lobbyist issue finally came Saturday afternoon, Clinton said she was “waiting for this.”

“It seemed like she was just waiting for someone to take a shot at her today. With this crowd, there was no way she was going to win ... unless she called for an outright ban on lobbyist contributions,” said Keir Murray, a Houston-based public affairs consultant who writes about politics at Houtopia.com. “But I give her credit for coming here and appearing before what’s not her crowd. All in all, I would say it was a positive for her.”

No other issue dominated the debate, which will be followed Tuesday by another debate, to be held at Soldier Field in Chicago before the AFL-CIO.

There was warm response to Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s call for more public service (“We are missing that shared experience as Americans”) and for Obama’s insistence on more U.S. foreign aid and active engagement with the world.

The bloggers laughed and applauded when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson conceded (“I screwed up on that one”) that he had not picked the best role model when he named the late Byron R. White, an opponent of legalized abortion, as an ideal Supreme Court justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes closer to the type of justice he would like to appoint, Richardson said.

Several participants complained that questions filtered through two moderators were not nearly as provocative as those posed by video in last month’s YouTube debate.

The “net roots” audience got its greatest chance for spontaneity when it interrupted the candidate introductions, loudly singing happy birthday to Obama. The candidate turned 46 Saturday, eight years younger than Edwards, the next-youngest Democrat running.

james.rainey@latimes.com


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