Democratic presidential hopefuls on Monday brandished their labor credentials and tried to outdo one another with political promises as they competed for the support of two powerful labor unions.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut told the Service Employees International Union that he would get universal health care passed and signed in four years. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois insisted he would immediately bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton promised to stop outsourcing government work to private companies.
The SEIU endorsement would be a plum for any candidate. The organization bills itself as the nation's fastest growing union with more than 1.8 million members. It is also a major player in campaign financing, having given more than $25 million to mostly Democratic candidates since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Several Democrats shuttled from Chicago to Washington, appealing to the 500,000-member Laborers' International Union of North America in Chicago and then making their pitch to the SEIU later in the day.
Edwards told union activists in Washington that his first act as president would be to introduce a law taking away health care from Congress, the vice president and the Cabinet in July 2009 if universal health care was not passed first.
"And I don't want to hear any whining," Edwards told the cheering and stomping crowd.
Democrats have been working hard to gain the support of unions like the SEIU and the Laborers, hoping to break free of the presidential primary pack.
President Bush and his administration were popular targets, with each candidate promising to be more labor friendly.
"People say to me, when I'm president will labor have a seat at the table? Labor built the table," Clinton said.
Obama invoked Vice President Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he talked about the questions about his experience.
"What they really mean is you haven't been in Washington long enough," Obama told the SEIU crowd. "We don't need that kind of experience. ... I might not have the kind of experience that Washington likes, but I have the experience America needs right now."
Dodd, Clinton and Edwards have each received endorsements from other unions this year.
SEIU President Andy Stern said he expects the service employees' endorsement to be made no earlier than October. However, the union members' reaction to the candidates Monday will play a big part in that decision.
"If they're all split up all over the place, it'll be hard to imagine the leaders making a decision," Stern said. "If they had a very strong preference for one of the candidates in September, it would have a huge positive impact on our decision making."
SEIU is one of seven major unions that broke from the AFL-CIO in 2005 over internal disagreements on how best to build organized labor's membership and political clout. The unions have since formed a new political coalition - Change to Win.
Following the conference session, members were asked to submit their favorite candidate in an informal straw poll, reports CBS News reporter Aaron Lewis. It is expected that the results of the poll will have a heavy influence on the union's official endorsement.
Only one of Change to Win's unions have made an endorsement: the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which endorsed Edwards last month. The rest will meet in Chicago later this month to hear from the Democratic primary candidates.