Democratic Hopefuls Face Off at Soldier Field

Candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for president stood before an audience of thousands Tuesday night to debate issues of foreign policy, national security, infrastructure and labor. The event was sponsored by the AFL-CIO at Soldier Field in Chicago. Michele Norris talks with Adam Davidson, who was at the event.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It was part policy debate, part stadium spectacle. The candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination stood before thousands of union activists in Chicago this evening for their latest debate. The event was sponsored by the union umbrella organization - the AFL-CIO. It took place outdoors at Chicago's famed football stadium, Soldier Field.

NPR's Adam Davidson is there and he joins us now. Adam, who had the most to gain tonight?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Well, I think for John Edwards, this was a really, really big night. I mean, he has just staked this campaign to labor support. If he has any hope of really doing well in Iowa and South Carolina, it's entirely going to be due to labor endorsing him, labor - getting the troops out. And so I think for him, this was a big, big night and - which is kind of interesting because a few, you know, 10, 20 years ago, for much of the 20th century, the AFL-CIO endorsement was maybe the definitive issue in a Democratic - campaign for the Democratic nomination. It just isn't as much that way for the other candidates. But for Edwards, it's really decisive.

NORRIS: Well, even so, he came to Soldier Field hoping this would be a slingshot for his campaign. Did he pull it off? Or did someone else outshine him?

DAVIDSON: Well, I'm hearing from a lot of people, and I've got to say it for myself too. I think Hillary really - Hillary Clinton really stood out tonight. She seemed very, you know, very presidential, I have to say. The word you hear a lot here is one word: electable. There are a lot of union people who say that she might not be where they want on the policies. They really, I think, like Kucinich and Edwards on the policy issues, but they think Hillary is the one who can win, and that's obviously what she thinks as she says in a cut we have.

(Soundbite of Senator Hillary Clinton's speech)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential candidate): 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.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: I'm your girl. I assume we're going to be hearing a lot more of that. Now, this happened at Chicago's famed football stadium - Soldier Field. This is Barack Obama's home turf. How did he do?

DAVIDSON: I thought it was going to be his night as I came to Soldier Field on this really miserably hot Chicago day. There was just Obama signs everywhere. Clearly, he was benefiting from the home turf advantage. But he didn't get as big applause lines as others did. He didn't get the home runs as much, although he did pretty well when he got into some labor issues and, I mean, some trade issues rather, and really spoke directly to what the unions are concerned about.

(Soundbite of Senator Barack Obama's speech)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential candidate): People don't want a cheaper T-shirt if they're losing a job in the process. They would rather have the job and pay a little bit more for a T-shirt. And I think that's something that all Americans could agree to.

DAVIDSON: I - what was interesting for me, you know, as you know, I cover global trade for NPR, and global trade is, you know, so often just relegated to the back pages of newspapers and not something people talk about. Obviously in the last year, it's been more and more in the headlines. And I would say it was the big, big issue here. I mean, health care played a big role. There was very little talk on education. There was talk on Iraq, but trade was the big, big issue. And if you wanted the crowd to really go nuts, you'd say that free trade was bad, that NAFTA was bad, that CAFTA was bad. These are the free trade agreements that the U.S. recently signed.

Pretty much all the candidates promised to either pull out of or rewrite NAFTA substantially. All the candidates promised to force labor standards, environmental standards on new free trade agreements. It was a big, big issue. And I think on the issues Kucinich was - Dennis Kucinich was really who the audience wanted. He was speaking directly to them.

NORRIS: Now, Adam, just quickly before we let you go, I know that this was Obama's home turf. Hillary Clinton made it clear that she, too, used to go to Unions - to Soldier Field, with her father noting that she, too, had Chicago roots. The AFL-CIO meets tomorrow to talk endorsements. Any idea, just quickly, what they're likely to say?

DAVIDSON: What is expected is they're going to tell each union to pick for themselves, that there's not going to be a blanket endorsement, although they are going to ask to wait until November. So that's going to be a big, big fight for the next few months.

NORRIS: Thank you, Adam.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Adam Davidson in Chicago.

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