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Democratic Hopefuls Make Last Pitch to Iowans

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee is away.

The Democratic presidential candidates are all insisting they are the ones who can change the nation's direction. And yesterday, Iowa voters got a look at six contenders. It's fair to guess that thousands of Iowans will still have a chance to meet candidates in person over the holidays. But this was the final debate before the Iowa caucuses start the presidential selection process early next month.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Democratic candidates tackled some fresh topics yesterday, but the overall message was one we've heard before. Voters are looking for a change in direction, and the candidates are competing over who's got the best roadmap.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards both called for a sharp turn away from politics as usual in Washington. Here's Obama addressing a question about budget priorities.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): What I want to do is get the long-term fundamentals right. That means that we are investing in education. We're investing infrastructure. We're getting our trade deals, structured so that they're fair. The fact is that we're not going to be able to do this unless we're able to overcome some of the special interests that have clogged up the system.

HORSLEY: Edwards sounded a similar note about overcoming special interest, especially big corporations.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): One of the reasons that we've lost jobs, we're having trouble creating jobs, we're having trouble growing and strengthening the middle class is because corporate power and greed have literally taken over the government.

HORSLEY: Edwards and Obama are in a close three-way race in Iowa along with New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Clinton took a subtle jab yesterday at Edwards' brand of populism and Obama's rhetoric of hope.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Everyone wants change. Well, everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change. Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change. That's what I've done my entire life.

HORSLEY: Yesterday's debate was the last time the Democrats would share the stage in Iowa before the caucuses. They discussed taxes, energy policy and trade. Iowa is a major exporting state, but many residents here are skeptical that free trade has been good for the economy. Edwards says increased trade with China is just another example of how corporate interests are leading U.S. policy astray.

Mr. EDWARDS: Big corporations made a lot of money - are continuing to make a lot of money in China. But what did America get in return? We got millions of dangerous Chinese toys. We lost millions of jobs. Right here in Iowa, the Maytag plant in Newton closed. A guy named Doug Bishop, who I got to know very well, had worked in that plant, and his family had worked in that plant, literally, for generations.

HORSLEY: Edwards has also criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, which former President Bill Clinton signed into law. Hillary Clinton said yesterday that NAFTA should be modified, but she won't go as far as Edwards in attacking the free trade policies championed by her husband.

Sen. CLINTON: You know, you have winners and losers from trade right here in Iowa. People who are gaining because we're exporting and people, who John has rightly pointed out, have lost their jobs. We need to make a clear it to the rest of the world that we are an open society. We believe in trade. But we don't want to be the trade patsies of the world.

HORSLEY: Edwards and Obama typically present themselves as fresh alternatives to Clinton. But moderator Carolyn Washburn of the Des Moines Register pointed out Obama relies on many of the same foreign policy advisers who assisted former President Bill Clinton.

Ms. CAROLYN WASHBURN (Editor, Des Moines Register): With relatively little foreign policy experience of your own, how will you rely on so many Clinton advisers and still deliver the kind of break from the past that you're promising voters?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, the…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: …you know, I am…

Sen. CLINTON: I want to hear that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Well, Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: That was one of the biggest applause lines of the afternoon. Another came from Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who was asked if he's running to restore his family's reputation after his senator father was censured in 1967 for misuse of campaign funds. On the contrary, Dodd said he is hoping to follow his father's example of public service.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): Lawyers only have so many clients. Doctors only have so many patients. But a well-intentioned public servant can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. That's my motivation. I want to carry that tradition on. That's why I'm running for president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: That time, Dodd's fellow presidential hopefuls joined in the applause.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.