Obama and Clinton Take the Gloves Off In AFL-CIO Debate

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, far left, stands on stage with seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates before a debate held by the AFL-CIO at Soldier Field in Chicago. Next to Sweeney, from left, are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), former senator John Edwards (N.C.), and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio). (By Charles Rex Arbogast -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

CHICAGO, Aug. 7 -- Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton came under sharp attack from their Democratic presidential rivals in a highly spirited debate here Tuesday night, with Obama rebuked as irresponsible on foreign policy and Clinton accused of being too cozy with corporate America and Washington lobbyists.

The debate, which was sponsored by the AFL-CIO, turned into the most animated encounter of the Democratic campaign, suggesting that the battle for the party's nomination may be entering a new phase, one that is likely to grow increasingly contentious after Labor Day.

The candidates appeared far more willing to challenge one another directly, and in more pointed language, than in previous debates. Elbows flew throughout the night, and the challengers appeared more eager to mix it up, stoked perhaps by the enthusiasm of a large and boisterous audience.

Obama (Ill.) and Clinton (N.Y.) held their respective ground when the criticism came their way. Clinton deflected it by arguing that she is the candidate best prepared to defeat the Republicans in 2008 and lead the Democrats back to the White House.

"For 15 years I have stood up against the right-wing machine, and I've come out stronger," she said. "So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."

Obama forcefully fired back at his rivals, who included Clinton, arguing that those who were now attacking him had helped authorize the Iraq war, which he called "the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation."

An estimated 17,000 union workers and their families filled end-zone seats at Chicago's Soldier Field, home of the NFL Chicago Bears. They cheered and occasionally jeered the seven candidates who were on a stage constructed on the field.

Clinton has opened a wide lead in recent national public opinion polls, making her a target for rivals, but the night's exchanges demonstrated that she hopes to stay above the fray as long as she can by talking about beating the Republicans.

Obama's enormous fundraising success and his grass-roots support have made him Clinton's leading challenger, but his more experienced opponents are now eager to undermine his standing by questioning his readiness to serve as president. His performance showed a determination not to let their criticism stick.

Also on stage were former senator John Edwards (N.C.); Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.); Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who trumpeted his experience and union fealty; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who promised to banish "union-busting attorneys at the Department of Labor and OSHA and all our agencies"; and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio).

Throughout the 90-minute debate, each sought to show superior labor credentials, producing one memorable scrape between Edwards and Biden.

"It is fine to come up on this stage and give a nice talk," said Edwards, who is competing hard for union endorsements. "The question is: Who's been with you in the crunch? In the last two years, 200 times, I have walked picket lines. I have helped organize thousands of workers, with 23 national unions."

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