By Times staff writers

UNION LABEL: Labor politicos are pondering the possibility of plunging into the Democratic presidential race big time by giving the official blessing of the AFL-CIO to one of the contenders for the nomination. All the candidates will be invited to appear together at the federation's national convention next month in Detroit as the first step in the competition for an endorsement.

By giving its backing to Walter F. Mondale in 1984, the labor federation helped him edge out Gary Hart. But in 1988, the unions could not agree on a candidate and no pre-primary endorsement was made.

As the late-starting 1992 campaign gets under way, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin seems to have the inside track because of his strong pro-labor record and his rousing speeches to union meetings in recent months. Party professionals agree that labor's phone banks and mailings to its members would be particularly valuable in this campaign because all contestants are expected to be short of cash and other resources.

One problem: Federation ground rules require a two-thirds majority for endorsement. That level of support might be hard for Harkin to reach because other candidates enjoy good relations with some unions, too, particularly Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.

CLASS OF '92: Although the 1992 field of Democratic presidential contenders lacks any really big names, some party pros contend that this year's top candidates are more impressive than their counterparts among the so-called "seven dwarfs" who competed in 1988.

Thus, Sen. Harkin, the 1992 favorite of liberal activists, is viewed as more forceful than 1988's liberal champion, bow-tied Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who some observers thought suffered from his professorial appearance.

Similarly, many feel that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the only white Southerner in the 1992 race, is a more engaging personality and a livelier speaker than Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who filled the same role in 1988 and often was accused of pomposity.

And some pros argue that Sen. Kerrey, who has cast himself as the 1992 champion of the baby boom generation, seems more substantive and convincing than Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who tried to fill that slot in 1988 and was forced to pull out of the race because he plagiarized a campaign speech.

MENDING FENCES: In a gesture to Jewish voters angered by his diplomatic pressure on Israel, President Bush intends to name Max Fisher of Detroit, a prominent Jewish Republican, to a major fund-raising post in his reelection campaign, GOP sources say.

"I think it's called atonement," one Republican operative said, referring to Bush's desire to quell the anger among Jewish leaders at his decision to postpone $10 billion in loan guarantees because of Israel's construction of Jewish settlements in the Arab-populated West Bank.

Fisher, 83, a former chairman of the Republican Jewish National Coalition, has been a GOP fund-raiser for more than 30 years and has also served as a personal envoy from Bush to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

GOP activists said Bush isn't worried about his own reelection--which won't depend on Jewish votes--but about several Senate races where Jewish voters and contributors could be key.

The two Senate races in California could be close, they said, and Jewish support for Democratic candidates could swing the results.

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