WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates pledged their support for labor rights before a builders union yesterday, but the war in Iraq cast a shadow over the session, with union members shouting down a Republican lawmaker who backed the war and cheering Democrats who promised to get the United States out of Iraq. “This war is a mess. We should bring the troops home now!” shouted Representative Dennis Kucinich , Democrat of Ohio, bringing the blue-collar crowd to its feet in raucous applause. Kucinich, a second-tier candidate who draws minimal support in public-opinion polls, rarely gets such an enthusiastic response at multi candidate forums.
Other candidates also won cheers and standing ovations from the Building and Construction Trades union when they attacked President Bush’s Iraq policy and committed themselves to ending the war.
By contrast, House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio, one of two Republicans who addressed the conference, was booed loudly when he spoke in favor of the war. “If we don’t fight them [in Iraq], we will be fighting them here in America,” Boehner said, before the audience shouted him down.
“I appreciate the dialogue. I do,” Boehner said, as the audience continued to express its disapproval.
The Democratic contenders — all eight of the announced candidates except former Alaska senator Mike Gravel — took turns bashing President Bush’s policies toward labor unions and each said he or she would reverse course upon reaching the White House. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson further pledged that, as president, his labor secretary would be “a union member.”
The group gave Senator Hillary Clinton , Democrat of New York, several standing ovations for her detailed and passionate comments on raising the minimum wage and protecting the rights of workers to organize. But Clinton — who has been criticized for her 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq and subsequent refusal to apologize for it — did not mention the war, and a handful of anti war protesters greeted her when she arrived at the conference.
Former senator John Edwards , Democrat of North Carolina, had the crowd frequently on its feet as he praised the builders and condemned what he called inadequate healthcare benefits for workers. “We want to honor working people in America. We don’t just honor wealth, we honor work,” said Edwards, who has made the labor union vote a key target group of his campaign.
But Edwards drew as many cheers when he talked about the war. “America needs to be leaving Iraq,” he said.
Senator Christopher Dodd , Democrat of Connecticut, criticized the Bush administration’s labor policy, while Senator Barack Obama , Democrat of Illinois, reminded the crowd that he was against the Iraq war when it came before Congress in 2002. A state senator at the time, “I stood up and said this is a bad idea,” Obama said.
Senator Joseph Biden , Democrat of Delaware, dedicated much of his speech to the war and his plan to apportion power in Iraq to quell the political battles between competing factions. “Ladies and gentlemen, this war must end. It must end, and it must end soon,” Biden said, drawing cheers and a standing ovation.
Edward C. Sullivan , president of the builders union, said the group, an AFL-CIO affiliate, would decide who to endorse in the next few months. “This was a first impression, but it is not the last impression,” he said of the candidates who appeared.
Several GOP contenders — including former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — were invited to speak but declined, citing scheduling conflicts, he said.
Sullivan said many in the union’s membership, which he described as about 30 to 35 percent Republican, counted Iraq as a major voting issue. “We have a lot of members with a son or daughter over there who are coming back injured, coming back without feet or legs. They need to come home,” Sullivan said.
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