"This is personal for me," said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who mentioned his union brother and retired letter-carrier mother in a direct appeal to the 2,000 rank-and-file members at an AFL-CIO-sponsored forum.
Crucial to union workers who typically vote Democratic has been free-trade agreements that proponents argue expand the market for American-made goods and foes complain send U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas.
Several of the Democrats promised to oppose any expansion of the North American Free Trade agreement. Two indicated they would support it. All nine used questions about trade, health care, pensions and education for a broader critique of President Bush's record.
"If it were before me today I would vote against it because it doesn't have environmental or labor standards in it," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who did vote for NAFTA. "If we're going to create jobs, the first thing we have to do is make sure George W. Bush loses his."
Dick Gephardt, whose introduction garnered the loudest applause, reminded the audience that he led the congressional fight against trade agreements.
"I appreciate the position that some take here, and I appreciate what they're saying, but I'd just say one thing to you: Check our record, check who was there when the fat was in the fire," the Missouri congressman said.
But two candidates indicated their support for expansion of NAFTA.
"The United States does not have the choice to become a protectionist nation," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. "We are the leader of the world economy. Leading that economy carries with it certain responsibilities."
Joe Lieberman also said he would probably support such a move.
"Let's remember, with all respect, that support of free trade and fair trade was a basic part of the Clinton-Gore economic record," said the Connecticut senator, who drew boos from some in the audience when he expressed support for school vouchers.
Gephardt, who has gambled his presidential hopes on the support of organized labor, had the most at stake Tuesday night in his effort to secure a laborwide endorsement. He gave a surprisingly impassioned speech to the United Steelworkers of America, who announced their endorsement Tuesday.
The former House Minority leader, a constant opponent of trade pacts, described the conditions in countries in which the United States has trade agreements.
"When people are living on the ground like animals in cardboard boxes, that's nothing short of human exploitation," the Missouri congressman boomed to a sympathetic audience. The steelworkers represent 1.2 million active and retired workers in the United States and Canada, with about 650,000 dues-paying members.
Union officials are meeting this week in part to determine whether Gephardt, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 1988, can secure enough endorsements from individual unions to win the elusive AFL-CIO prize. The federation has endorsed only twice before in primaries — Al Gore in the last election and Walter Mondale in 1984 — and the threshold is support from two-thirds of the AFL-CIO's 13 million rank-and-file members.
Labor leaders say Gephardt is the only current candidate with a chance to join that list, even as they caution that there is a real possibility the labor group will make no endorsement. The AFL-CIO may call for another meeting later this fall, giving them more time to gauge support.
On trade, Gephardt stands alone in the top tier of candidates in solid opposition to free trade agreements that have decimated many unions. He has said that if elected, he would not negotiate any more pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Lieberman has faulted Democratic rivals for their protectionist ways. The Connecticut senator never mentions Gephardt by name, but Lieberman campaign aides say he is the target of the criticism.
"Some would raise the walls of protectionism again," Lieberman said in a speech Monday. "But we've got a record trade deficit and our manufacturers are hemorrhaging jobs. We need more markets, not fewer."
Last year, Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards voted in favor of granting Mr. Bush authority to negotiate fast-track trade agreements, which requires Congress to vote them up or down without making changes.
Another rival, Howard Dean, said in a labor questionnaire that he supports free-trade agreements if they contain provisions protecting workers. He also backed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman and son of a truck driver, also has opposed fast-track procedures for trade agreements.
Organized labor, which has been battered by free-trade agreements, so far appears unwilling to cast aside Democrats who don't share Gephardt's strong opposition. Many unions are unsure about backing Gephardt, despite his trade views, much to the frustration of some labor leaders.