AFL-CIO Debate: Clinton Earns Loudest Boos, Biggest Applause

A hometown crowd cheered Sen. Barack Obama as he volleyed with his Democratic rivals over his judgment and experience during tonight's AFL-CIO debate in Chicago. But it was Sen. Clinton who, in what might be a metaphor for the entire race, earned the loudest jeers and the most sustained applause.

The jibes against Obama came from all corners -- from moderator Keith Olbermann, who wondered whether there was political calculation involved in Obama's decision to vote against a war supplemental, to Chris Dodd, who called Obama's foreign policy views reckless, from Dennis Kucinich, who noted that Obama regularly voted to fund the war, and from Hillary Clinton, who threw a dart aimed at his core vulnerability.

Just a moment earlier, he said that his critics had little standing to question his words.

"I find it amusing that those who help to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation are now criticizing me for making sure we're on the right battlefield," he said.

Clinton had a line at the ready.

"You can think big, but remember, you shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president, because they could have consequences," she said. That drew loud boos.

Earlier, though, Clinton heard appreciative hoots and whistles when she referred to her rivals' criticism and said that "for 15 years, I've stood against the right wing machine and know how to come out stronger. If you want a winner, if you want to take them on, I'm your girl."

After a raucous thirty minutes of questions and answers about foreign policy, the mood abruptly shifted. One by one, union members and displaced workers described their plight to the Democratic candidates.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich said his administration would be known as the "Workers White House." Sen. John Edwards said he would "walk onto the lawn of the White House and say how important labor unions and organized labor is to the future and economic security of this country." He bragged that he had "been with you in the crunch," walking picket lines "200 times" and helping 23 different unions organize workers. Clinton vowed to "be the president who signs the Employee Free Choice Act into law." Obama noted that he worked after college with displaced steelworkers. "Everybody in this stadium knows the work I've done with Illinois labor and that's the kind of work I want to do around the country."

Quick Takes On The Candidates

Obama -- his night, for the most part; a hometown crowd, his audience, his references, his tough talk on immigration, his credible answers on foreign policy and an eloquent verbal essay on baseball and Barry Bonds. One note, though: Obama noted that he met Hank Aaron this weekend; Aaron is a Clinton supporter.

Clinton -- she seemed withdrawn until she pulled out the old standard: she's a Clinton, she's been attacked, she knows how to fight -- what this has to do with labor is unclear -- but it worked, and pulled the crowd around. For the rest of the debate, she seemed a lot more comfortable (in the baking heat), even when she was booed for essentially calling Obama inexperienced and naive. This was not her crowd, and she did very well, all the same.

Biden: he's the Scottie Skiles of the race, serving up assists to, primarily, Hillary Clinton. He really does well in these formats, and he earns the audience's applause. He connects well with the audience; his own illnesses, his wife's death, his long battle for more transportation funding.

John Edwards: The angry man seemed to fall flat at Soldier Field. This time, Edwards couldn't even be the foil. He gave good passion, but he kind of faded to the back; Kucinich outflanked him on labor and Dodd and Biden had legislative accomplishments to back up their speeches. Edwards seemed eager, almost too eager to solicit endorsements, mentioning twice that he had joined 200 picket lines (even on Saturday and Sunday, gracious me).

Kucinich -- the only one of the stage to look the industrial unions in the eyes and promise to withdraw from NAFTA. He was the dirty pop of the race, allowing the crowd to let their protectionist instincts run wild before returning to the more cautious precincts of the rest of the field. Clearly, his best debate.

Dodd
-- a solid performance.

Bill Richardson: I agree with Chuck Todd's take.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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