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Clinton shoots for top of firefighters' ladder

March 15, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A seven-hour parade of presidential candidates Wednesday offered the latest opportunity for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama -- who have dominated the spotlight in the Democratic race -- to square off in direct appeals to powerful potential supporters.

Clinton seemed to best Obama at a forum sponsored by the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, winning repeated cheers, whistles and applause.

Throughout the morning and into late afternoon, Republicans as well as Democrats spoke to the gathering. Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson each could leave heartened by the enthusiasm they generated. So too could former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But for many, the focus was on Clinton, the senator from New York, and Obama, the senator from Illinois.

William Taylor, a firefighter from Marlboro, Mass., summed up the face-off, saying, "Hillary pretty much blew the crowd away."

Part of her success stemmed from tailoring her speech, more so than Obama, to some of the union's specific concerns.

The event marked the second consecutive day at which the two went head-to-head. On Tuesday, each courted participants at a Washington meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The rank-and-file members of the firefighters union are almost evenly divided between Republicans (about 42%) and Democrats (about 40%), according to the group's president, Harold Schaitberger.

But leaders of the union, which has about 3,000 locals nationwide, played a prominent role as a Democratic power broker in the 2004 campaign.

While many labor organizations embraced former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the early stages of the Democratic nomination process, firefighters wearing their union's gold-and-black jackets showed up en masse at rallies in Iowa for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the eventual nominee.

The war in Iraq has been a central theme in speeches aimed at wooing the union members, especially among the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates.

Schaitberger said that based on surveys by the union, attitudes among its members toward the war have shifted dramatically. In 2004, he said, more than 70% of the members supported the U.S. role in Iraq. Now, he said, 75% favored either immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, a drawdown based on a specific timetable, or a redeployment of military forces elsewhere in the region.

This shift was evident in the crowd's reaction to McCain. Although he was warmly received, there was largely quiet when he reiterated his backing for Bush's deployment of additional troops to Iraq and said, "The hour is late, but we must try."

Nor did McCain spark much of a response when he warned that failure in Iraq could draw the United States into "a wider and more terrible war," and lead to new attacks in the U.S. by Al Qaeda-backed terrorists.

By contrast, the crowd applauded Obama when he called for the removal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by March 2008.

He criticized those who "give long speeches about valor and sacrifice.... But when it comes time to send our troops into battle with the proper equipment and ensure that veterans have what they need when they get home, they don't do anything except slap a yellow ribbon on the back of their SUV."

Clinton built much of her speech around the union's continuing battle to win the right to organize in states that thwart such efforts. She earned standing ovations for her calls to allow firefighters in every state to bargain collectively.

"When you plunge headfirst into burning buildings for a living, you have more than earned the right to organize for better conditions on the job," she said.

She also teased the audience members, thanking them for their warm welcome and then -- in husky voice and raising an eyebrow -- saying, "and thanks for last night too," a reference to a reception with the firefighters Tuesday night.

"Hillary Clinton seemed to focus more on our issues; the other candidates seemed to focus more on the war," said Greg Colangelo of Niagara Falls, N.Y. "We'd like to see them do both: Work with labor, and get us out of the war."

Candidates eschewing the forum included McCain's two main foes in the GOP race -- former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

Giuliani has been in a bitter feud with the firefighters union since two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he decided to end the meticulous search for human remains at the site of the World Trade Center and allowed workers to speed up debris removal.

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