Union Tribune

November 12, 2003

Unions' backing gives edge to Dean in Democratic race

By GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON When Howard Dean accepts the endorsement of two of the largest and most powerful unions in the AFL-CIO today, it will cap a tumultuous two-week period that had threatened to shake up the race for the Democratic presidential nomination but, in the end, strengthened Dean's front-runner status.

Dean will flex his newfound labor muscle when he holds a news conference with the presidents of three unions Andrew L. Stern of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union, Gerald W. McEntee of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and James A. Williams of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which has 140,000 members.

SEIU is the largest union in the AFL-CIO, and all of the candidates have wooed the leaders of SEIU and AFSCME. The painters already had endorsed Dean.

The fresh endorsements, which were signaled last week, give Dean two critical elements that his come-from-nowhere campaign had been lacking ground troops in Iowa to match those of candidate Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and a solid entree to the Democratic Party establishment.

The Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 are perhaps the most significant chance for the other candidates to stop Dean. The good news for Dean concludes one of the most significant two-week periods in the race for the nomination.

In the past 14 days:

Dean on Oct. 31 suffered his worst stumble of the campaign when, in talking about the need for Democrats to broaden their appeal, he said he wanted to attract support from "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." After a forced apology Nov. 6, he quickly changed the subject.

The terrain suddenly shifted for all candidates when economic data released Oct. 30 showed impressive 7.2 percent growth in the third quarter, raising questions about using the economy as an issue against President Bush.

Only two days later, the terrain shifted again when an Army Chinook helicopter was downed near Fallujah, killing 16 troops in the single deadliest attack of the war on U.S. troops. That tragedy amid growing public concern about U.S. policy in Iraq left Democrats believing that the war could become a political vulnerability rather than an asset for Bush.

Saturday, Dean changed his previous position and announced he will opt out of the federal campaign finance system, which means he will not be bound by spending limits up to the nomination. He would still be eligible for federal matching funds for the general election.

Monday, the campaign of Sen. John Kerry the presumed front-runner just six months ago was left reeling after his campaign manager was fired. Two senior aides resigned yesterday in protest.

Other than the flap over the Confederate flag which opponents predict will plague Dean when the campaign moves to the South the only bad news for the former governor of Vermont in the past two weeks was a new Iowa poll. The poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register, showed Gephardt opening a 7-point lead over Dean after they were locked in a near-tie there in August.

Donna Brazile, who ran former Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, said the race "is still wide open," but said Dean has established himself as the candidate for the party's anti-war wing.

She said time is starting to run out for the other candidates unless the wing of the party that supported the war in Iraq can settle on a candidate from among Kerry, Gephardt and Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina.

"With AFSCME and SEIU now on board, Dean's campaign is beginning to take on a new tone and a flavor that will be very difficult to beat," Brazile said.

"Those endorsements alone will have an enormous impact on the race," she said. "For starters, they are the most politically active unions. They give Dean incredible ground support in Iowa and New Hampshire."

In addition, she said, union presidents McEntee and Stern are highly visible leaders of the Democratic Party. "For all the talk that the establishment is going against Dean, now you have the establishment embracing Dean with their strong support," she said.

Sam Popkin, a former Gore adviser and professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, called the endorsements "a really big deal."

"It really helps in Iowa. The big thing is he's getting this legitimacy in places where the other guys were hoping to get it," Popkin said, suggesting that the endorsements put pressure on the party to rally behind Dean "to get this over with and focus on Bush."

The good news for Dean made the contrast with Kerry's bad news even more stark.

"It's a mess of a campaign," Bill Carrick, the California-based senior adviser to Gephardt, said of Kerry's situation.

"This is the classic case of a candidate who won't turn over the reins" to any centralized decision-making authority. "And that," said Carrick, "is always fatal."

Other candidates have shaken up their teams, but for different reasons. Ronald Reagan acted in 1980 because of a personality clash; Gore did so in 2000 to remove the lethargy of his campaign. But neither of those was tied so directly to the candidate as this one has been to Kerry.

As if to get people talking about something else, Kerry appeared on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" last night. He wore a leather jacket and rode a motorcycle on the stage.