The Democratic presidential candidates took each other on last night in Chicago in front of 17,000 union activists sweltering outdoors in Soldier Field. The AFL-CIO sponsored the gathering and chose issues important to labor. It was dubbed a forum, not a debate, though apparently nobody told the candidates.

NPR's Adam Davidson was there.

ADAM DAVIDSON: All night long, most of the candidates went back and forth between making small snipes at each other and fashioning applause lines from their most pro-labor views.

Here's Barack Obama with a twofer. He slams untempered globalization, a big theme for all the candidates here, and simultaneously jabs at Hillary Clinton, who this past weekend said she will take money from corporate lobbyists.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Globalization right now is creating winners and losers, but the problem is it's the same winners and the same losers each and every time. And we've got to mix it up, and that does mean, by the way, that you've got to have a president in the White House who is not subject simply to the whims of corporate lobbyists.

DAVIDSON: Get it? Hillary Clinton, he's saying, would be subject to the whims of corporate lobbyists. Clinton struck back later in a discussion of U.S. involvement in Pakistan. She referred to some recent comments by Obama saying he might unilaterally attack al-Qaida in Pakistan without that government's permission.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York City): You can think big, but remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president because it has consequences across the world.

DAVIDSON: Obama, Clinton's saying, doesn't understand that his words have consequences around the world. This echoes much criticism of Obama, that he's a bit young and inexperienced, especially on international issues. In fact, much of what Clinton and Obama said had little relation to the core concerns of the AFL-CIO.

They talked about Iraq and al-Qaida. They did speak to labor's issues, health care, trade, workplace standards, but they largely spoke in generalities. It was two other candidates, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, who spoke most directly to this audience.

Edwards, the wealthiest of the candidates, made clear that he's at heart a working man, that Clinton is more of a corporate type. In fact, he referred to a recent Fortune magazine cover story about Clinton.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Presidential Candidate): 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 betting on.

DAVIDSON: Edwards probably had the most to gain and the most to lose at the debate. His campaign has focused especially hard on getting union support. Analysts say unions are essential for his hopes of a high showing in early primaries.

While some unions do seem likely to endorse Edwards, other union leaders have suggested they'll support Clinton because they've known her longer and thinks she's more electable.

If electability were not an issue, it's easy to imagine Dennis Kucinich getting the lion's share of union votes. In almost any other setting, his views might be too radical. But here he got the loudest and longest applause of the night.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): It's time to get out of NAFTA and the WTO and go...

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Rep. KUCINICH: ...and have trade, and have trade...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Rep. KUCINICH: ...and have trade that's based on workers' rights - the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, the right to decent wages and benefits, and on and on. I'm here as the workers' candidate. Thank you.

DAVIDSON: The AFL-CIO leadership meets later today to discuss a possible endorsement.

Adam Davidson, NPR News, Chicago.

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