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Rivals swipe at Clinton

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to cut into her widening lead, top-tier Democratic presidential candidates used a testy debate here Tuesday to cast New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as beholden to powerful Washington lobbyists and too compromised to revamp healthcare and make changes the party wants to see once George W. Bush leaves office.

The repeated swipes at Clinton came amid new polling that shows her consolidating her advantage to the point that, in an eight-person field, she is drawing support from nearly a majority of voters.

Again and again, whether the question concerned bridge safety or free trade, Clinton’s main rivals tried to drive home a message that she is part of a Washington culture that is delivering results only for the most influential Americans.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, trailing Clinton by 36 points in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, said in reply to a question about the North American Free Trade Agreement, “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 counting on.’ ”

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Clinton appeared on the cover of the July issue of the magazine.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who trailed Clinton by 22 points in the same poll, made a reference to Clinton’s comment in a recent debate that she would keep taking campaign money from paid lobbyists.

“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?” he asked.

Clinton professed bemusement and said it was poor tactics for Democrats to fight among themselves. Yet at another point, she chided Obama for a speech last week in which he said that as president he might take military action inside Pakistan, a U.S. ally, to root out terrorists.

“I’m just taking it all in,” Clinton said. “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.”

She added 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.”

At that, the audience applauded.

The debate was sponsored by the AFL-CIO and attended by about 17,000 union members. In withering heat, the candidates answered questions from a stage sitting on the 10-yard line at Soldier Field. The event was broadcast on MSNBC.

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Each candidate would relish the endorsement of the 10 million-member AFL-CIO, but it is doubtful the union will choose a candidate before the primaries wind down next year. On one point, though, union officials are clear: They intend to endorse a Democrat.

“We believe one of the people up here tonight will be our next president,” AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney told the crowd.

Edwards seemed especially intent on rattling the front-runner. Early on he was asked by the moderator, MSNBC talk show host Keith Olbermann, about what needs to be done to shore up the nation’s infrastructure after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

He brought up Clinton’s refusal to reject lobbyist money.

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“My belief is, we don’t want to change one group of insiders for a different group of insiders,” he said.

Union members were given a chance to ask questions. An Indiana man, Steve Skvara, broke down telling how his company went bankrupt, costing him his health insurance and pension. “What’s wrong with America and what will you do to change it?” he asked.

Edwards struck a populist chord, saying that pensions and retirement benefits for CEOs should be treated the same as that of the lowliest worker.

Clinton called for a return of “defined benefits,” in which companies provide fixed retirement benefits -- a practice disappearing as businesses cast about for savings.

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“The pension system is broken,” she said. “We’ve got to stop companies going into bankruptcy in order to get rid of their pension responsibilities.”

Amid the sparring, there were some light moments. Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., known for being long-winded, was asked whether he would bar no-bid federal contracts -- something that has drawn criticism in the Bush administration.

“Yes,” Biden said, and stared at Olbermann.

Olbermann told him he had 20 more seconds to make his point.

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Biden kept staring. Point made.

Olbermann was unable to wrest an answer from Obama on whether, as president, he would invite Barry Bonds to the White House to honor his home run achievements.

Obama seemed annoyed by questions about his foreign policy speech last week, in which he raised the specter of launching attacks in Pakistan.

Asked about the matter, Clinton said it would be dangerous to destabilize the government of Pakistan’s leader, Pervez Musharraf. She suggested it was risky to talk in such terms.

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“So, you can think big,” she said, “but remember, you shouldn’t always say everything you think if you’re running for president, because it has consequences across the world. And we don’t need that right now.”

Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd also faulted Obama: “I think it is highly 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 are trying to get to be more cooperative with us in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”

Obama answered: “You obviously didn’t read my speech.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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