(From Chip Reid, NBC correspondent)
Iraq may be the number one issue for Democratic activists, and yes, it was an important issue today at the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) forum moderated by Hardball’s Chris Matthews. But for this union crowd, old-fashioned pocketbook issues and questions about economic fairness got at least as much attention—and a more explosive response.
Some Examples: Hillary Clinton’s first big applause line came after she (predictably) professed her support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize, a top legislative priority for unions. (Opposing it would be political suicide in front of this crowd.)
John Edwards got lots of applause with his well-practiced riffs on economic inequality.
And Barack Obama paraphrased the position of U.S. companies manufacturing in China like this: “We want to strip health care and retirement security benefits, so we’re going to move over there and ship back here,” a line that brought raucous cheers and shouts.
On Iraq, there were no surprises. All three top candidates know what they have to say in front of activist crowds—start bringing the troops home now, and get all but a skeleton crew home by a date certain.
Obama always has an unspoken advantage over Clinton and Edwards on Iraq, since they both voted for the war as senators, and he opposed it from the beginning (though he wasn’t in the Senate at the time.) He rubbed it in a bit, reminding folks that “many of us, looking at the evidence ahead of time, understood that there was not an imminent threat.”
But Edwards, who doesn’t have to vote anymore and appears to find that liberating, and Clinton, who has finally come around to a position on the war that gets applause from Democratic activists, also scored plenty of points on Iraq. Not surprisingly, their fire was aimed at President Bush, not each other.
So did anybody win?
In the interest of full disclosure, I was tied to the msnbc anchor seat, so I watched it on TV (and darn it all, I left my applause-o-meter at home) but from where I sat, it was Obama who got the crowd most fired up. And it didn’t hurt with this crowd that Chris Matthews in the Q and A compared Obama to Bobby Kennedy.
But it was Edwards who made clearer than anyone else that he’ll be with the union crowd through thick and thin, no matter what. And it’s gotta help that he’s the son of a millworker (and though he’s had to defend his own wealth, he didn’t have to do much of that today.)
And Clinton managed to get the all the cheers she needed from this liberal group, while also slipping in a few comments to show centrist Democrats she hasn’t abandoned them (even commending Bush at one point for finally talking to our enemies.)
As for AFSCME, they’re keeping their powder dry. Don’t forget they endorsed Howard Dean early last time around, and they don’t want to get burned again. And who can blame them—with three strong pro-union candidates (plus Richardson, who also has alot of union support), they’re probably wise to wait for a clear favorite before they jump in.