CHICAGO — Sen. Barack Obama played his trump card against rivals who questioned his ability to run American foreign policy at a debate Tuesday night, reminding other leading presidential candidates that they — unlike him — voted for the Iraq invasion.
The rowdy, hometown audience for the debate in sweltering Soldier Field, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, welcomed Obama's response to the foreign policy criticism from fellow senators. First came Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who said Obama's threats to raid Pakistan in search of terrorists could destabilize a friendly but fragile regime.
"Well, look, 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 that we are on the right battlefield
and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism," Obama said to applause for the crowd.
New York Sen.Hillary Clinton echoed Dodd's criticism, reflecting the view of much of the Washington foreign policy establishment: that preserving Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's tenuous hold on power should be a key American goal.
”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," she said, referring to the risk of a power grab in Pakistan by "Islamist extremists who are in bed with Al Qaeda and the Taliban."
She closed, amid boos: "We don't need that right now."
But Clinton was applauded elsewhere in a debate in which Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards tried to cast themselves as Washington outsiders, and Clinton as an insider. Edwards and Obama were met with attacks from "basically the whole Senate cloakroom," Edwards adviser Joe Trippi said after the debate, saying Dodd and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden took after Edwards and Obama.
And Clinton herself tried to capitalize on recent dust-ups about her relationship with lobbyists by claiming that enduring name-calling marks her strength.
"You know, I've noticed in the last few days that a lot of the other campaigns have been using my name a lot," she said. "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."
Though the debate was staged in Obama's home state, it was also in a sense Edwards' turf. The 2004 vice presidential nominee has made the strongest pitch to labor leaders, having walking — he said — 200 picket lines in recent years.
"We don't want to change one group of insiders for a different group of insiders," Edwards said, in a veiled shot at Clinton. "We need to give the power in America back to you and back to working men and
women all across this country."
But he came under sharp attacks from Biden and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who tried to paint Edwards as a latecomer to the labor cause who only cast himself as the candidate of workers after he was no longer running for Senate in North Carolina, where organized labor is weak.
"I'm your candidate if you want to get out of NAFTA," Kucinich said, after Edwards said that the treaty should be "fixed," not scrapped. "Let's hear it. Do you want out of NAFTA? Do you want out of the
WTO?" Kucinich said to a roaring crowd.
And Biden mocked Edwards' recent devotion to picket lines.
"Where were you the six years you were in the Senate? How many picket lines did you walk on?" he asked.
After the debate, Biden's campaign circulated newspaper articles from Edwards' first campaign in 1998, in which he was quoted supporting a local "right to work" law that makes union organizing harder.
For all their attempts to press their labor credentials, however, the candidates — other than Kucinich — didn't publicly differ on any issues of labor policy.
"The Democrats are united," said a labor adviser to Clinton, Mike Monroe.
The Chicago crowd seemed to lean heavily toward Obama, and Mary Crayton, a former official of the Office and Professional Employees International Union in Chicago was no exception.
"As well as Edwards talked, it’s also important what he did in North Carolina," she said after the debate, echoing Biden's criticism. "I love Obama."