4 Democrats visit the city to press their campaigns

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is all smiles at City Hall as she listens to Mayor Street, who endorsed her candidacy. Other area Democrats also backed her.

For a few hours, Philadelphia joined Manchester, N.H., and Des Moines, Iowa, as a hub of presidential politics yesterday, with four Democratic candidates making stops to cater to elements of the party's base.

They courted the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, which is holding its national representative assembly in Center City and traditionally provides money and manpower to Democrats.

They then appeared at a presidential forum in North Philadelphia staged by a national advocacy group for the poor.

"Your agenda is basically my agenda," former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards told members of ACORN.

Edwards, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut addressed more than 9,000 NEA delegates, promising variously to pay teachers more, reduce class sizes, change the controversial No Child Left Behind law, and make pre-kindergarten classes available to all 4-year-olds. The union plans to endorse a candidate in the fall.

"The test has become the curriculum when it should be the other way around," Clinton said, bringing the teachers to their feet with an assault on No Child Left Behind, a federal law that requires schools to test students annually in reading and math, penalizing those who fail to show progress.

"Our children are getting good at filling in those little bubbles [on tests] but how much creativity is getting left behind, how much passion for learning is getting left behind?" Clinton said. She pledged to provide pre-K classes for every 4-year-old in the nation, which her campaign has estimated would cost $5 billion a year.

Clinton also drew a standing ovation for vowing to fight school vouchers "with every breath in my body," saying providing public money to allow students to attend private schools would undermine public schools and lead to an "erosion of our democracy."

Dodd said he was "proud to have a 100 percent NEA voting record" through six years in the House and 26 years in the Senate. He called the union members "trustees of our democracy."

Edwards promised that his administration would "treat education professionals with the dignity and respect they deserved for the work they do every day." He also proposed having the government pay college tuition for all students who are willing to work 10 hours a week; his campaign said that the program would cost a net $3 billion after changing the federal student-loan program so that the government administered the loans rather than banks.

Edwards, Clinton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich then appeared at a presidential forum staged by ACORN - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. The national organization advocates policies that help the poor.

The three joined in endorsing ACORN's stands on such issues as sub-prime mortgages, voter protections, urban policy, education spending, immigration and the minimum wage - in each case calling for strong federal action.

In her remarks to a packed house of nearly 1,000 people, Clinton voiced her desire to address the needs of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the working poor, and people without health insurance.

Edwards said several times that ending poverty in America was "what my life is all about" and recalled having worked with ACORN to raise the minimum wage state-by-state and on a federal level. He said the time had come to raise it again.

"I'm announcing this today," he said. "When I'm president of the United States, we're going to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 [per hour], and we're going to index it so that it'll go up every year as wages go up."

The federal minimum wage, which is $5.15, is set to rise to $5.85 on July 24 as a result of legislation enacted in May. The wage is slated to rise another 70 cents both next year and the year after, reaching $7.25 by the summer of 2009.

Kucinich, who spoke between Clinton and Edwards, got wild applause from the crowd as he laid out his vision of America. He said that every high school graduate should get free tuition at public universities, that preschool should be available to every child, and that health care should be provided by the government as "Medicare for all."

"The minute I start talking like that, people in Washington say, 'How are you going to pay for it?' " he said. "They never ask that about the war," saying he would cut the defense budget by 15 percent.

"The money's there," he said. "We just have to change our budget priorities."

Earlier in the day, Clinton basked in the endorsements of Mayor Street and other Democratic elected officials during a City Hall rally.

"The choice was very easy," said Street, the city's second black mayor, saying Clinton has the experience and toughness to lead in a dangerous world. "She is the right person to protect the interests of my grandchildren," Street said.

Polls in the recently concluded Democratic mayoral primary showed that Street has low approval ratings citywide, but he remains popular in some areas, and his support carries symbolic weight in Clinton's struggle for black votes with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is seeking to become the first African American president.

There are deep political ties between the mayor and the Clinton family. In 1999, when Street seemed on the verge of losing to Republican Sam Katz, President Bill Clinton came to Philadelphia for a rally credited with turning around Street's fortunes.

The former first lady also received the support of U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County; Don Cunningham, the Lehigh County executive; State Sen. Connie Williams of Montgomery County, City Controller Alan Butkovitz; and City Council majority leader Jannie Blackwell.

The NEA and the Candidates

The National Education Assocation, considered the largest labor union in the United States, has 3.2 million members. About 9,000 delegates are meeting in the union's annual convention through Thursday at the Convention Center.

Today, Democratic presidential candidates Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are scheduled to address the convention. On Thursday, the delegates are scheduled to hear from two more Democrats - Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware - and one Republican candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

For a slide show of presidential candidates in Philadelphia, visit http://go.philly.com/democrats

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.