CHICAGO - It can be rough being a front-runner, especially on a hot night on the gridiron.
Two of the leading Democratic presidential candidates found themselves repeatedly under attack Tuesday evening at Soldier Field, one for recent foreign policy statements and the other for taking money from lobbyists.
With their ties to the Chicago area, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York both had something of a home-field advantage. Still, they repeatedly found themselves back on their heels facing oncoming tackles from competitors on a stage near one end zone.
Shortly after the start of AFL-CIO forum, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards went after Clinton for her acceptance of money from federal lobbyists to help fund her campaign.
“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,’” he said. “That’s one thing you can take to the bank.”
Clinton, who was born in Chicago and grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., was recently pictured for a Fortune cover story on CEOs and the presidential contenders, entitled, “Who business is betting on.”
It was an attack that Edwards, joined by Obama, started three days earlier in Chicago at a forum sponsored by liberal Internet bloggers at McCormick Place.
“I’ve noticed in the last few days that a lot of the other campaigns have been using my name a lot,” Clinton said, adding that she did not want to “get in fights with Democrats.”
Facing off against six other candidates, Clinton also sought to show that she has a record of toughness.
“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.”
With temperatures in the high 80s, the candidates had air conditioning on stage, but there was still plenty of heat.
Organizers said about 17,000 union members and their families attended the 90-minute forum, ranging from pilots in white shirts and ties to workers in T-shirts.
Obama’s recent controversial comments on how he would implement U.S. foreign policy, meanwhile, prompted attacks from his rivals who have used his statements to try to paint the first-term senator as a naive newcomer.
He found himself forced to defend his call for a potential unilateral U.S. military strike within Pakistan if that government did not act on actionable intelligence showing al-Qaida activity that could include Osama bin Laden.
“I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism,” Obama said, referencing votes of his opponents in favor of the Iraq invasion.
But Clinton and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut both maintained Obama was wrong to make such comments without thinking about the potential ramifications in Pakistan, a nuclear power, under the unstable government of President Pervez Musharraf.
Dodd, a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lectured Obama that “words mean things” and “we’ve got to be very careful about language that is used in terms of the danger and harm it can do to our nation.”
Clinton continued the lecture toward Obama, who did at one point accidentally refer to the prime minister of Canada as “president.”
“It is a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamic extremists who are in bed with al-Qaida and Taliban,” a chiding Clinton said to a growing chorus of boos. “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.”
Dodd said he had the “courage” to say he made a mistake for his 2002 vote to authorize U.S. troops in Iraq and said Obama’s comment was “dangerous.”
Obama failed to provide an answer to whether he would honor baseball slugger Barry Bonds, whose career has been clouded by allegations of steroid use, at the White House, if he were president.
“I honor his achievement,” Obama said. “But I hope that all of us are focused on making sure that sports is something that kids can look up to, not something that they start feeling cynical about.”
Reflecting on the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said the nation must do more to invest in mass transit, smart-growth planning and infrastructure. “We have to invest in our power grid, our bridges, our highways,” he said.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware agreed that the ruling party has ignored needed investment. “These guys, Republicans, have been irresponsible about our infrastructure, our security, and the safety of this country,” he said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio criticized his fellow lawmakers in Congress for being too friendly with other nations on trade issues.
“There was a myth when I was growing up in Cleveland that if you dig a hole deep enough, you’ll get to China,” he said. “We’re there. And we need to have a president that understands that.”
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel was the only Democratic candidate who did not participate.
All of the candidates touted the need for some form of universal health care, an issue being pushed by some of organized labor’s top unions. A powerful force within the Democratic Party, the candidates are working hard_literally - to display their labor credentials.
Obama, for example, was expected to be up early Wednesday morning to court another important union, the Service Employees International Union, which is asking each candidate to spend a shift with one of its members.
He is scheduled to meet up at 5:45 a.m. PDT with a 61-year-old home health care worker before she leaves her home in Alameda, Calif., for work.
Inside the stadium, Stafford Price, 38, a letter carrier from Chicago’s South Side, quietly took in the event. It was the first political debate he had ever attended. “It’s amazing to be this close to somebody who is going to be the next president of the U.S.,” he said.
Down in one of the front rows was Victor Pineda, 22, a machinist from Chicago, who had been selected to ask a question of the candidates. Pineda, who had come prepared to ask them what they would do to improve worker safety protections, had a badly bruised left hand that he said was hurt during an on-the-job accident.
But Pineda’s heart was also set on hearing what the candidates have to say about immigration reform. “I have a lot of family members who do not have papers,” said Pineda, adding that he was born in the U.S.
Near him was Olton Holmes, 44, a bricklayer from New Orleans, who said he lost his house and most of what he owns when the hurricane struck the Gulf of Mexico. Living in Mobile, Ala., since then, he said he has begun to work again and “get back on my feet.”
His question for the candidates was what steps they would take to avoid “a repeat of the situation now in New Orleans,” he said. “Sometimes we feel like they have stopped paying attention to us.”
Several of the candidates used tailgate rallies outside Soldier Field to mobilize their supporters. Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, organized a debate-watching party at a South Michigan Avenue pub, where she was to appear after the forum as part of a petition drive to get her on the primary ballot in Illinois.
(Chicago Tribune correspondent Rick Pearson contributed to this report.)