Firefighters Gain Favored Spot With 2008 Hopefuls

11 Speak at Union Forum in Washington

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 15, 2007; Page A04

The International Association of Fire Fighters made a strong case yesterday for the title of the politicians' favorite labor union.

Who else but the union that represents many of America's first responders -- the heroes of Sept. 11, 2001 -- can draw 11 declared or would-be presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike, to speak on the same day in Washington -- and along the way get into a public spat with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was a no-show?

The IAFF's seven-hour presidential forum at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill began at 9 a.m. with a speech by former senator John Edwards (N.C.). It continued, with a short break for lunch, until 4 p.m. after a lengthy address by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

There was highflying rhetoric and low comedy, personal accounts of firefighters' courage and heroism, and sharp disagreement over Iraq. All through the day, there was an abundance of pandering. As New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) put it: "If you don't endorse me, I'll love you. If you do endorse me, I'll love you more."

The firefighters gave Democratic candidates the most enthusiastic receptions. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) received several standing ovations -- but Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) got more.

Edwards brought enthusiastic cheers with his union-oriented agenda. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) started slowly but won several rounds of applause when he talked about ending the war and giving better treatment to returning veterans. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sought to sell the importance of continuing the fight in Iraq to a highly skeptical audience, got three standing ovations.

Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III (R) tried to connect by stressing his father's union roots. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) won applause for his son's service in Iraq, but when he mentioned his support for President Bush's troop increase, he was met by silence.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) drew a polite but restrained reception. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who announced Monday that he will announce later whether he plans to run for president, did worse. At one point, he praised volunteer firefighters -- to the dismay of those in the union audience.

IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger delivered effusive introductions for virtually all the candidates, and they responded in kind. Edwards described Schaitberger as not just a powerful union leader but also "one of the great leaders in the United States of America today."

Clinton burst onto the stage after her introduction, basking in the applause. "Thank you all. Thanks so much," she said. And then, with a mischievous smile and a quip that drew a surprised response from the predominantly male audience, she added: "And thanks for last night, too." She was apparently referring to Tuesday's union reception.

Clinton, Obama and McCain tend to draw the most attention at such events as yesterday's, and the other candidates are always looking for means to draw attention. Gilmore swaggered. "At the end of the day, I am going to defeat these people that the media people have considered to be the leading candidates," he said. "And that means I will win this nomination over McCain, [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney and Mayor Giuliani."

Richardson joked about the lustrous field of Democratic candidates. "I want to tell you that I think all of them could serve enormously well in the White House -- as my vice president," he said. As the laughter faded, he added: "Now, you know, I've got to do that because, you know, I'm still in the second tier. I'm trying to move up."

Edwards challenged the firefighters to measure whether others are as true in their commitment to the labor movement. No matter whom the union supports, he said, "the one thing you can take to the bank, as long as I am alive and breathing, I will walk picket lines with you and I will help to organize and I will stand with you because I believe in you."

Biden's appeal was intensely personal, as he described how firefighters had helped save the lives of his two sons and how they got him to the operating table through a snowstorm when he was suffering from a cranial aneurysm. "You are simply the single best thing we have," he said.

Dodd noted that he wrote the bill that helped provide more federal funding for first responders. "If America's firefighters are going to be the first ones to respond to an emergency," he said, "you shouldn't be the last ones to receive support from your government."

Giuliani and the union have been in a long dispute over a decision scaling back efforts to recover the remains of firefighters who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He was initially not invited to speak, then was extended an invitation. Campaign officials said a scheduling conflict prevented him from attending.

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