Rep. Dick Gephardt's political campaign staff were in the midst of planning their big official coming out party for sometime in February when word came down that before they'd really begun running, their man had been hit with a huge setback.
Word coming out on Wednesday that Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was backing Sen. John Kerry is a huge blow to Gephardt, who was counting on organized labor -- particularly the AFL-CIO (of which AFSCME is a part and where McEntee serves as political chairman) -- as part of his base. And while the AFL-CIO won't be making any decisions any time soon, the AFSCME move certainly gives Kerry an edge for future, bigger support from labor unions.
"Our base just got a whole lot shakier," said a Gephardt adviser on Thursday morning after taking stock of the situation. "In Iowa" --where the first caucus will be held, and where Gephardt was thought to have an edge -- "this might not have hurt him, but this early, when the campaign hasn't really started, man, it can't be easy."
Some Gephardt people were downplaying the McEntee backing of Kerry, saying it was a pre-ordained deal when the Massachusetts Democrat brought one of the party's high profile media advisers, Jim Margolis, on board. "Margolis has made a lot of money off of labor. This shouldn't be that big a surprise," says a Democratic National Committee staffer who has done work for Gephardt over the years.
But for McEntee to back Kerry is a bigger deal, if only because there were more labor-friendly candidates in the mix. And because McEntee's comments come out so early in the process. Assuming McEntee continues to talk up Kerry, it gives Kerry's grassroots operations across the country a pool of donors and volunteers should AFSCME steer its members toward a candidate the home office is backing. "All of sudden, Kerry is looking even bigger than he already was," says the DNC source. "And you just know that everyone is going to be comparing Kerry to Clinton now."
That's because McEntee was one of the first national union bosses to back Bill Clinton's candidacy in 1992.
As for Gephardt, it's fair to note he hadn't really begun working his organized labor connections. Yet even in Iowa, he hadn't received firm commitments from unions for his candidacy. If one thing was clear, it was that his past relationships weren't going to guarantee him anything.
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