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Sweet column: In Chicago Sunday, Obama, Clinton, Biden, Richardson, Edwards pitch trial ("justice") lawyers. Fund-raising on the side.

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WASHINGTON -- Five Democratic presidential candidates will hit Chicago today to pay their respects to trial lawyers, influential beyond their numbers because they are among the party's most reliable and biggest donors.

The candidates will speak at the annual convention of the American Association for Justice, known until last December as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

Trial lawyers -- who handle civil cases such as medical malpractice, personal injury and product liability -- are at the top of the enemies list of Republicans, the Bush White House and various precincts in corporate America, who have been pressing state and national lawmakers for years to approve proposals to place curbs on lawsuits and caps on awards.


The rebranding -- including another switch, from the phrase "trial attorneys" to "justice lawyers" -- came in an effort to draw attention from the individual attorney to the "mission."

The group, meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, will hear from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Barack Obama, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) can't attend because of a scheduling conflict, and it seems the organization did not go out of its way to book long shots Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska). Over a long lunch, each candidate will have 20 minutes to talk and take questions.

"At a nuts-and-bolts campaign deliverable level," said AAJ consultant Chris Lehane, "the justice lawyers are one of the major political players within the Democratic Party at a contribution level, at a message level, as important opinion makers and as organizers.''

The political muscle of the group is such that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) flew in for an appearance, and about 20 congressional Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate assistant majority leader, are scheduled to speak or drop by.
Obama has already delivered tough-love messages to the trial lawyers as a state senator and in his first weeks in the U.S. Senate. On Feb. 10, 2005, Obama and Dodd were two of 18 Democrats who joined with Republicans in voting for a bill, opposed by the trial bar, making it harder for lawsuits to be certified as class actions.

Edwards, a former trial lawyer, has relied heavily on the trial lawyer network to bankroll his second White House bid, though many are also donating and raising money for front-runners Clinton and Obama, despite his 2005 vote.

With so much Democratic money in one hotel, all of the Democrats are hosting receptions for donors in connection with the convention. Clinton will appear at a "Lawyers for Hillary" event today at the hotel, with the "ask" between $250 and $2,300.

In the 2006 congressional cycle, trial lawyers scored wins in 14 of 18 races involving trial lawyers. One noteworthy victory was in Iowa, where now-Rep. Bruce Braley was attacked as a "trial lawyer" -- but the strategy backfired.

"The justice lawyers are especially motivated in 2008," said Lehane. "For seven years, they have been the focal point of George W. Bush, who in a raw, crass, partisan, Nixonian political move has targeted justice lawyers at the behest of his biggest donors and in order to stuff the Republican Party's financial coffers."

Chicago will host another gathering of the Democratic presidential contenders when they return for the "YearlyKos" convention Aug. 2 to 5 at McCormick Place, organized by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the Chicago native who is the founder of the influential "Dailykos" blog.

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UPDATED 2:58 A.M. MONDAY

> Hi Lynn,
>
> Thank you for your mention of the YearlyKos Convention and our Presidential
> Leadership Forum in your July 15 article
> (http://www.suntimes.com/news/sweet/468558,CST-NWS-sweet15.article
> ).
>
> Please note that the following bolded statement is inaccurate and should be
> corrected.
>
> Chicago will host another gathering of the Democratic presidential
> contenders when they return for the "YearlyKos" convention Aug. 2 to 5 at
> McCormick Place, organized by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the Chicago native
> who is the founder of the influential "Dailykos" blog.
>
> The YearlyKos Convention is actually organized by a group of volunteers
> unaffiliated with Markos Moulitsas and Daily Kos. The convention is a
> project of bloggerpower.org with support from the Netroots Arts and
> Education Initiative. Kos Media LLC simply lent bloggerpower permission to
> use the Kos name in the title of the convention in its early years.
>
> Thanks again for the mention.
> Mary
>
> Mary Rickles
> Director, Marketing and Media/West Coast
> YearlyKos Convention
>

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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