Clinton, Obama spar at labor union debate

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sparred over relations with Pakistan on Tuesday, and Clinton took fire for accepting donations from lobbyists during a lively debate before labor activists.

To the cheers of 17,000 union members at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears football team, Obama defended his recent comments that he would be willing to strike al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan without the approval of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Clinton, a New York senator, and fellow Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut questioned Obama’s judgment. Dodd called the comments “irresponsible” and Clinton warned of destabilizing Musharraf’s government. She called Obama’s approach “a very big mistake.”

“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. And we don’t need that right now,” Clinton said.

Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois and early war opponent, wondered why he was being attacked by Senate rivals who voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war. Democratic presidential candidates Dodd, Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware all voted to authorize the war.

“I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me,” Obama told union members gathered in Chicago before a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s executive council on Wednesday to begin discussion of a presidential endorsement.

The federation requires a two-thirds majority to make an endorsement and lend a candidate its organizational and grass-roots muscle in the November 2008 election. It is unlikely to reach that threshold this year, with Clinton, Obama and Edwards all enjoying significant pockets of support.

Related Coverage


The council could decide to let some of the 55 individual unions in the federation begin to endorse candidates, labor officials said.

Edwards, who trails Clinton and Obama in national polls and is locked in a three-way struggle with them in the crucial kickoff state of Iowa, has pushed hard for union support and made it a key part of his strategy to win the nomination.

He attacked Clinton as a Washington insider, prolonging a fight started at a weekend debate where Clinton defended taking money from lobbyists who represent special interests before Congress.

Edwards and Obama are pressing fellow Democrats to agree to stop taking the funds.

“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,” Edwards said, referring to a picture of Clinton on the magazine last month. “That’s one thing you can take to the bank.”

Slideshow ( 4 images )

Clinton has received more than $400,000 from lobbyists working for special interest groups, more than any other candidate in either party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama has received more than $60,000.

Clinton, who leads national polls in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination, said she had noticed other candidates using her name often but she did not want to fight Democrats.

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

Slideshow ( 4 images )

The candidates courted the labor activists with promises to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and broaden health care coverage for uninsured Americans.

Most of the candidates said they would be tougher on China when it comes to human rights and trade, and warned the United States was falling deeper in debt to Beijing.

“We have to have tougher standards on what they import into this country,” Clinton said. “I do not want to eat bad food from China or have my children having toys that are going to get them sick.”