Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean gained the endorsement Thursday of the largest union in the AFL-CIO and was on the threshold of winning support from a second major union, backing that would provide a major boost to his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Service Employees International Union's executive board delayed formal announcement of a decision to back Dean until next Wednesday, when it could act jointly with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But sources close to labor and the Dean campaign said the SEIU had endorsed Dean and that AFSCME was expected to follow suit.
The labor support would continue Dean's transformation from a little-known candidate to the favorite in the Democratic race.
The developments also were good news for Dean after he fended off attacks in recent days from his Democratic rivals over comments he made about the Confederate flag. Dean eventually expressed remorse for his remarks.
Indeed, the support of the two unions should help Dean's efforts to overcome that flap. Perhaps more important, the backing would demonstrate that he is making inroads among traditional Democrats -- in this case, with a segment of organized labor known for its ability to turn members into campaign workers. The SEIU says it has 1.6 million members, and the AFSCME says it has 1.4 million.
The duel endorsements would be a blow to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has counted on broad support from organized labor in his quest for the nomination. Gephardt and other Democratic candidates have been working behind the scenes to try to persuade the two unions to remain neutral.
Eric Hauser, a Democratic strategist who is not yet backing a candidate in the nomination contest, said the SEIU support of Dean and the expected endorsement from AFSCME is evidence that "the institutional players in the Democratic Party think he can win, or they wouldn't have done this. Secondly, it's like a breath of fresh air for him after the Confederate flag [controversy]. He must feel like a new man."
Hauser added that in a Democratic race with nine candidates, "if you can turn out an extra 10%, that can be a huge difference."
The benefits to Dean could be substantial in the first two contests in the nomination race. AFSCME is one of the most influential unions in Iowa, which conducts its caucuses Jan. 19. The SEIU has a large membership in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 27.
SEIU leaders had made it clear recently their union was leaning toward Dean. But the leadership of AFSCME had been considering several of the Democratic candidates and had not been expected to made an endorsement decision soon.
Ethan Rome, an AFSCME spokesman, said the presidents of the two unions agreed on a timetable that would let the two labor giants see whether they could unite behind one candidate.
A source close to the discussions said of the anticipated announcement next week: "Obviously, that would not have occurred if the two unions ... were not working together."
On Thursday in Washington, Dean spent 45 minutes meeting privately with the leadership of the SEIU, and then eight minutes standing largely silent at a news conference at which the union announced that it would not announce its endorsement decision until next week.
But Dean's demeanor and attire left little doubt about what the announcement would be. He a wore a broad grin and a jacket of purple cloth and black leather sleeves with "Dr. Dean" stitched across the right side of his chest and the union's insignia on the left.
Andrew L. Stern, the union's president, said the executive board "reached a decision, and we are hopeful that there are actually other unions that share our members' excitement for Dr. Dean's candidacy."
Then the candidate spoke: "I'm not going to say too much because we're not going to announce anything, but it has been a great process and a great pleasure to work with an extraordinary group of people."
Members of the Service Employees union clean office buildings, care for patients in nursing homes and work in local, state and federal governments, among other jobs.
The members range from those at the bottom of the economic ladder to doctors. Nearly 40% of the union's members are ethnic minorities, with 28% black or Latino, a union official said.
Members of AFSCME hold a range of jobs at all levels of government; more than one-third of members are college-educated.
Thursday's SEIU meeting took place two days after Dean's fellow Democratic candidates tried during a debate in Boston to derail his campaign over his remark that he hoped his candidacy would appeal to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."
His comment was published Saturday in the Des Moines Register and it has been a focal point of the Democratic campaign throughout the week.
On Wednesday, Dean said he had expressed "in a clumsy way" his view that the Democratic Party needs to broaden its appeal in the South to include poor whites.
The candidate added: "I regret the pain that I may have caused either to African American or Southern white voters in the beginning of this discussion."
Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues, said that against that backdrop, the support of the SEIU "is certainly a boost for Howard Dean. It comes after a bad week" for him.
Stern, the union president, said the group spent about 10 minutes discussing the flag issue with Dean.
Tyrone Freeman, the president of an SEIU local in Los Angeles, stepped to the microphone to say he was speaking "for people of color" and that he was "satisfied with the explanation and program and agenda of Gov. Dean with regards to dealing with issues of minorities."
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign chief, said of the SEIU: "It's a bottom-up, grass-roots union that puts a lot of people out there. They're everywhere, they're active and they do a lot of outreach."
He also said: "The other campaigns have been sticking us with the rap that we're the Internet campaign, we can't appeal to blue-collar workers. That's a phony charge. [The SEIU backing] proves that's false."
Gephardt's campaign noted that he has been endorsed by 20 international labor unions representing 5 million members nationwide and more than 54,000 in Iowa.
Unions endorsing Gephardt include the Amalgamated Transit Union, the bakery workers, the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Teamsters, the longshoremen, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the steelworkers.
Gerstenzang reported from Washington, Barabak from California.