WATERLOO, Iowa - Leading contenders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination pitched their plans to improve the economy during a three-hour grilling here yesterday at the state convention of the Iowa Federation of Labor.
Unlike earlier debates, the candidates here appeared one after another, each facing 30 minutes of pointed questions from a panel as 250 labor leaders from around the state looked on.
While the candidates occassionally mentioned each other, most spent time lashing out at President Bush.
“He is working every single day against working families,” North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to the delegates, decrying the loss of jobs under Mr. Bush. “He is taking a two-by-four to the American dream. We ought to be exporting American products, not American jobs.”
Mr. Edwards said he would establish shareholders' and workers' bills of rights to protect Americans from corporate abuses. He also called for a national venture capital fund to help new companies.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Florida Sen. Bob Graham said they would help low-income workers by instituting a payroll tax holiday that would exempt the first $10,000 worth of income from Social Security taxes.
All of the candidates said they were unhappy with the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the agreement governing the World Trade Organization because, they said, the treaties harmed U.S. labor unions and put America at a competitive disadvantage. Most said they would work to change the treaties, but Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland stood alone in promising to withdraw the United States from both agreements.
“Anyone who says they are going to change NAFTA and the WTO without canceling them doesn't know what they are talking about,” Mr. Kucinich told delegates, because changes the United States wants to make also must be ratified by other nations that won't want to remove advantages they now enjoy.
“We must use our trade laws in the service of our economy,” he said.
He also pledged tax advantages for companies in the steel, automotive, aerospace, and shipbuilding industries because he said they are critical to the nation's defense and must be protected.
The candidates all said they would like to impose new requirements into the trade agreements that would force other nations to follow environmental and labor laws much like those in the United States.
“We've told American corporations to go anywhere in this world and exploit people,” Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt told the delegates. “It's not good for America, and it's not good for the other countries. “
The candidates are appearing at events across Iowa this week, but their campaigning is anchored by stops at the state fair in Des Moines. Six candidates - including Senators Edwards, Kerry, and Graham; Congressmen Kucinich and Gephardt, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - appeared at the forum here.
The Iowa caucuses, set for January, will be the first in the nation.