Candidates fuel hopes of party liberals

Times Staff Writers

Two powerful blocs among Democrats -- organized labor and liberal activists -- heard several of the party’s presidential contenders pledge allegiance Thursday to a progressive agenda more sweeping than would have seemed politically palatable not long ago.

The candidates’ liberal chorus about the war in Iraq, gay rights, healthcare and labor issues was a testament to the Democratic left wing’s growing strength since the Republican rout in the 2006 midterm election.

The White House hopefuls called for broad healthcare reform. All embraced allowing gays to serve in the military, a step to the left of President Clinton’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The rival candidates also paid homage to their party’s deep antiwar sentiment by competing for the mantle of being the most strongly opposed to the war in Iraq.

Speaking to a labor group in Washington were Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.


The forum of liberal groups, which convened a few blocks away, heard Edwards, Obama and Richardson, along with Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska. Clinton and Kucinich are scheduled to address that group today.

At a time when many Republicans are dissatisfied with their presidential candidates, the mood at the twin forums illustrated the energy and high hopes coursing through liberal ranks.

“There’s enthusiasm and optimism that someone in this room will be elected president,” said Wayne Holland Jr., head of the Utah Democratic Party who attended the conference of liberal activists organized by the Campaign for America’s Future. “There’s a confidence I’ve never seen.”

However, by pushing their nominee to the left during the primary contests, Democrats risk not being able to win over more conservative voters in a general election. But for now, progressives see the field of candidates catering to liberal interests as an embarrassment of riches.

“I was impressed with all of them,” said Allan Winey, an accountant in Pennsylvania who attended the day’s first gathering, a meeting of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. “They are all headed in the right direction.”

The crowd at the union convention numbered about 2,000. More than 3,000 people were at the more boisterous conference of liberals.

A large contingent of Obama supporters packed one side of the hotel ballroom, hoisting blue signs and chanting his name before he spoke.

Edwards and Obama were each interrupted during their speeches by a band of activists chanting, “Beat the GOP. Beat the GOP.”

Obama delivered his signature call for changing the nation’s political culture from one driven by money, special interests and partisanship to one that makes room for a more civil, substantive and hopeful debate.

“Politics in this town is no longer a mission -- it’s a business,” he said. “If you want a new kind of politics it’s time to turn the page.”

Edwards focused on the campaign promises that have helped cast him as the major candidate with the most liberal platform -- with his calls to curb poverty, provide universal healthcare, combat AIDS in Africa and commit the U.S. to working more assertively to end genocide in Darfur.

Obama and Edwards sought to burnish their anti-Iraq war credentials.

Obama reminded the audience that, while serving in the Illinois state Senate, he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the outset while Edwards and Clinton voted for the Senate resolution authorizing the war.

Edwards stressed that, unlike Clinton, he has termed his vote for the war a mistake. He also chided Congress for not moving more aggressively to force an end to the U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

Earlier in the day, Richardson argued that he had the clearest plan to end the war -- by removing all U.S. troops by the end of the year without leaving residual forces, as Clinton has suggested.

Clinton’s address to the liberal activists will be closely watched; last year, she drew boos for refusing to back a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq. She has since changed her view.

At the union meeting, she risked alienating members by giving an equivocal answer about the North American Free Trade Agreement -- the controversial pact that her husband, during his presidency, pushed through Congress.

Labor leaders charge that the accord was an unfair deal that has cost Americans jobs.

“Like anything, NAFTA had some positives, but unfortunately had a lot of downside,” she said. “We see that especially in the loss of jobs going south to Mexico.... But we’re also now seeing it with the loss of jobs going north.”

Clinton’s campaign rhetoric increasingly has echoed union concerns about trade agreements. But it remains a tricky issue for her.

Much of her brain trust for domestic policy is dominated by former members of President Clinton’s administration who strongly supported free trade policies.

All the candidates highlighted their support for labor’s agenda -- especially a bill pending in the Senate that would make it easier for unions to organize workplaces and counter union-busting tactics.