Democrats Address Union Forum Ahead of Debate Democratic presidential candidates attended an AFL-CIO forum on Saturday night in Iowa, ahead of their debate on Sunday morning in Des Moines. Several of the candidates addressed the audience of union members in eastern Iowa — saluting the role that organized labor could play in the first caucus state.
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Democrats Address Union Forum Ahead of Debate

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Democrats Address Union Forum Ahead of Debate

Democrats Address Union Forum Ahead of Debate

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Democratic presidential hopefuls debate in Iowa today at Drake University in Des Moines. Last night, several of them addressed an audience of union members in eastern Iowa. The candidates saluted the role that organized labor can play in the first caucus state.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Standing in line outside the Hawkeye Downs Expo Hall in Cedar Rapids last night with a crowd of unionized plumbers, roofers and machinists, one man joked it would be a good time to belong to the printers union. Thousands of placards were printed up to promote the various candidates. They were stacked on dinner tables, hung from the rafters and waved in the air by enthusiastic campaign volunteers.

Unidentified Man: I-O-W-A.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Group: Hillary Clinton all the way.

Unidentified Man: I-O-W-A.

HORSLEY: Hillary Clinton was the first to address the crowd. The New York senator hailed organized labor as the key to a successful middle class and she accused the Bush administration of leaving working people confused and insecure.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We have a very fundamental, philosophical difference with the Republicans. They believe in a society that is basically you're on your own. And if you listen carefully to you're on your own, the first letters of those words spell yo-yo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: Think about it. Somebody else is holding the string and you're going up and you're going down. We reject that. We believe in solidarity. We believe in a society where we're all in this together. And you cannot believe that if you don't support the American labor movement and unions. And that's what I will do.

HORSLEY: Clinton and all of the candidates promised strong support for organized labor, including policies to make it easier for unions to organize a workplace.

Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards complained that trade pacts, like the North American Free Trade Agreement signed under President Clinton, don't do enough to protect American jobs.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): We have made a huge mistake with trade in this country. Our trade policy has been first question: Is it good for the profits of multinational corporations? That's not the question. The first question in an Edwards administration will be, is this trade agreement good for working middle-class Americans?

HORSLEY: The Democrats were in agreement on many issues including universal health care and expanded college opportunities. But Edwards took a subtle dig at rival Clinton, noting that his campaign, unlike hers, has refused contributions from corporate lobbyists.

Edwards and the other Democrats have been aggressively courting labor votes in Iowa. Last night's forum was their second labor-oriented event here in three days. That's no surprise to Sue Risterp(ph) whose husband is a union carpenter.

Ms. SUE RISTERP (A Union Carpenter's Wife): I think it's going to be huge here in the Midwest. I think that we have a lot of union people around this area, and I think we have a lot of middle-class people. And we need to get the Republicans out.

HORSLEY: Risterp is leaning towards Clinton, but her son Zach(ph) supports Barack Obama. The Illinois senator says if Democrats actually want to deliver on their promises of universal health care and an improved energy strategy, they'll have to organize more than just labor.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): We're going to have to make sure that young people and old people, that folks from every ethnic group, every religious group, and yes, we've got to reach out to independents and Republicans to form the kind of coalition that's going to be necessary to bring about real change.

HORSLEY: Obama appeared to have fewer supporters in the crowd than either Clinton or Edwards. But he still brought the audience to its feet when he told the story of visiting a small town in South Carolina. Not many people had turned out to see him there, he said, but a local city councilwoman urged the small group on by repeatedly chanting, fire it up.

Sen. OBAMA: And after she did this for about three minutes, I got to admit, I started feeling, kind of, fired up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: And I was ready to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: And that's what this election is about. If each of us individually getting fired up, each of us getting ready to go to take back America, to take back this country, to value labor, to organize, to mobilize, to march. Are you fired up?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: Ready to go?

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: That sense of party unity was easy last night when the candidates spoke one at a time and directed most of their attacks at Republicans. The solidarity may fade when the Democrats confront one another in a real debate.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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