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Dems speak at Heartland forum

From NBC/NJ's Aswini Anburajan
DES MOINES, IA -- The Democratic presidential candidates braved the ice and snow covering the streets of Des Moines to attend the Heartland Presidential Forum in Des Moines Saturday afternoon. Edwards, Kucinich, Dodd and Obama spoke at the forum. Clinton spoke to the crowd via phone. She had initially canceled her appearance yesterday during the hostage crisis at her field office in Rochester, NH.

The forum, organized by three non-profits, brought together groups of community leaders from Iowa and several other states who worked on issues like farming, immigration and urban poverty. Assembled on the stage were groups of three individuals who told personal stories and asking pointed questions like, "Do you think corporate America has too much power?" But most significantly, it gave a voice to the group of individuals at the crux of one of the most heated political debates in this election cycle -- illegal immigration.

Mayte, a young woman who immigrated with her mother from Mexico when she was 6, made a fiery and teary plea for immigration reform to allow young women like her who had been educated in the United States and were contributing to American society a chance to fully integrate by becoming legal residents. Clinton, in responding to the young woman's story, was booed loudly several times for her answers on immigration reform. Asked if she would commit to providing illegal immigrants a pathway to legalization, Clinton said that the decision rested with Congress.

Another woman, who had graduated from UCLA and had fled from the Vietnam War with her family as political refugees, told Dodd their petition for asylum had been denied years and years later. Another told the story of a raid in Illinois where federal agents had separated a mother from her infant while she was nursing. The case is one that has been raised by Obama on the campaign trail as a reason why, sending illegal immigrants already in the United States back home is an untenable policy.

Unlike Clinton, Dodd committed to providing a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants within his first 100 days in office, saying, "We've never done anything worthwhile as a nation when we've done it out of fear and hate."

He also said that one president or one party could not solve illegal immigration. It must be added that Dodd and the other candidates had an advantage over Clinton in being present at the forum and could better emotionally respond to the individuals and the stories they were presented with.

Obama had a home-field advantage, with many of the attendees coming from Illinois, and his first question was very soft. He was asked what he would do to help community values, which allowed him to tout his background as a community organizer in Chicago. Obama also took questions on whether the role of government should be expanded, access to universal health care and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

He said he would commit to putting pressure on lenders and banks to convert adjustable-rate mortgages into fixed-rates mortgages and provide greater government oversight of the mortgage crisis. All five candidates who spoke agreed to meet within their first 100 days to meet with a delegation of the campaign for community values.