Working to win the labor vote

November 03, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Nobody in recent politics has been more the champion of organized labor than Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is counting on its bedrock support as the base for his 2004 Democratic presidential nomination campaign.

Mr. Gephardt has 20 major unions in his corner, built on the strength of years of leading their fights on everything from minimum wage legislation to their battle against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Nevertheless, the largest union in the AFL-CIO and one of the most politically active - the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union - could give its endorsement next week to former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who, unlike Mr. Gephardt, opposed President Bush's invasion of Iraq, unpopular among many members.

Sixty-three local leaders comprising the union's executive board are to meet Thursday to consider whether to endorse a candidate, and spokeswoman Sara Howard says, "It's Dean or no one." SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, while cautioning that the outcome is "just speculation," adds: "It is becoming clear that the passion of the members lies with Governor Dean." The union could also skip an endorsement or leave the matter to local option.

If Mr. Dean gets the endorsement, his national campaign manager, Joe Trippi, says, "it will help deflate the argument that we're just the Internet candidate." That is, he says, it will demonstrate blue-collar support beyond the Internet, where Mr. Dean has had remarkable success in fund raising and grass-roots recruitment.

One neutral labor official agrees. Mr. Dean up to now has been seen as "the candidate of the Volvo-driving, upscale voters," the official says, but endorsement by the service employees, many of them nurses and janitors, could change that perception.

What an endorsement of Mr. Dean would do to Mr. Gephardt is uncertain. In Iowa, where polls show Mr. Gephardt is locked in a close race against Mr. Dean for the state's Jan. 19 precinct caucuses, the SEIU is not among the strongest unions.

But it is the largest union in New Hampshire, for whose Jan. 27 primary Mr. Dean is running well ahead of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in the polls. Mr. Gephardt's stated goal there is to run ahead of the other non-New England candidates.

A recent survey of the union's membership indicated that issues such as health care and union organizing protection were at the top of stated concerns. But these issues do not draw the clear distinction between Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Dean that the Iraq invasion does. Mr. Gephardt has since joined Mr. Dean in vociferous criticism of the president's handling of the attack's aftermath but apparently has not dented the support for Mr. Dean's more categorical opposition to President Bush on the war.

With Mr. Dean's general surge in the polls, Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry have found themselves cast as stoppers, Mr. Gephardt in his neighboring state of Iowa and Mr. Kerry in his border state of New Hampshire. As polls show Mr. Gephardt struggling to win in Iowa, some of his aides express disappointment that Mr. Kerry is not holding up his part of the strategy by being more critical of Mr. Dean.

But with Mr. Kerry identified as Mr. Dean's principal opponent in New Hampshire, Mr. Trippi says, Mr. Gephardt has been able to "retreat to a one-state strategy" in Iowa and focus the bulk of his resources against Mr. Dean there as the former Vermont governor fights on two fronts simultaneously.

While some Gephardt strategists continue to say their man must repeat his Iowa caucus victory of 1988, opportunities to recover may remain in a string of Democratic contests Feb. 3 in seven states, mostly Southern and Western. But Mr. Trippi says the Dean campaign is also busy organizing in all of them.

For Mr. Gephardt, losing organized labor's largest union might not be a body blow to his chances. But it would add a welcome dimension to the profile of the Dean constituency as he strives to convince doubters that he can be elected as more than "the Internet candidate."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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