White House Hopefuls Court Firefighters

As about 1,000 firefighters held an annual legislative meeting in Washington, D.C., no fewer than 10 presidential candidates appealed for their endorsement.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

In this very early pre-primary election season some candidates can be classified as top tier. Those are the ones with cash and name recognition. There are second tier, those hoping to break through. And then there are the rest, those running campaigns that the word long-shot doesn't even quite describe.

Regardless of their status, 10 presidential hopefuls yesterday made a pitch for themselves to a thousand members of the nation's largest firefighters union, holding its convention in Washington.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: Since 9/11, Americans have looked at firefighters differently. There's a new appreciation for the risk they take. And with that comes increased political clout. So this presidential forum, hosted by the International Association of Firefighters, attracted candidates from both parties, including leading Democrats John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): This hall is filled with heroes. To all of you who do the work everyday to protect us and to save us, thank you.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): If you're a retired firefighter who can't afford health insurance, well you're invisible, too. It's great for the photo ops, but how about taking care of the people who have taken care of us across our country.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate): When they talk about all the great jobs and jobs that have been lost in America, we're all worried about that. But people seem to forget that those jobs weren't great jobs before the union. It was the union who went out there and fought for good wages...

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: All of the Democrats talked about the Iraq war and about the need to plan for a troop withdrawal. The leading Republican present was Senator John McCain who said he supports President Bush's call for more troops.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The hour's late, the situation is indeed dire, but all of us have a responsibility to withstand despair and the allure of partisanship to make sound, informed judgments about how to proceed from here.

GONYEA: McCain's top rivals for the GOP nomination did not attend the event. Mitt Romney had a scheduling conflict. As for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, there's bitterness among firefighters over decisions he made after 9/11 when he ended recovery efforts at Ground Zero.

The union says it has an open mind regarding its '08 presidential endorsement but says it won't be Giuliani. New Mexico's Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, spoke yesterday.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): I was told we had 10 minutes to tell you how we're going to expand healthcare, restore collective bargaining, end the war in Iraq, fight terrorism; it's going to take me four words: Elect a Democratic president.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Each candidate covered numerous issues in their speeches. But over the course of a long day it wasn't all serious. Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas looked out at the firefighters in the audience and opened with a joke, sort of.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): Thank you very much. What a great group and a great chance to speak to you. And I hope there are no fires breaking out anywhere across the country with all you guys here. I'm sure people are covering...

GONYEA: Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut shared some biographical data.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): By the way, I'm the only presidential candidate who gets mail from AARP and diaper services, I want to tell you.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Dodd is 62 with a toddler at home. Senator Joe Biden, meanwhile, the Delaware Democrat, used a portion of his speech for a warm thank you.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): So when I say my support for you is real, you took care of me, you literally saved the lives of three Bidens and maybe four. I make no bones about my affection for you. Some of you are real horse's asses.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

GONYEA: Then there's Nebraska's Republican Senator Chuck Hagel who, earlier this week, announced he's not announcing anything yet. He showed up to speak at the firefighters' anyway offering this.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): I have no intention of announcing anything today.

GONYEA: But for the day's oddest moment, well, that prize may go to Senator Clinton. She took the stage to a loud ovation.

Sen. CLINTON: Thanks so much and thanks for last night, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: The senator was referring to a reception she attended the night before. Hey, it's still early in the election season, so these candidates are still working out their material.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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