Dogged grass-roots campaigning, missteps by rivals and the shifting ideological climate in the Democratic Party all contributed to the campaign coup Howard Dean is expected to announce today: the joint endorsement from two of the most politically potent unions in the AFL-CIO.
The anticipated support from the 1.6-million-member Service Employees International Union and the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will cap months of intense behind-the-scenes competition among the Democratic presidential contenders and could stand as an enduring turning point in the contest.
For Dean, the windfall seems equal parts the result of his own hard work at courting the SEIU, one of the most liberal unions in organized labor, and a failure by his opponents to seize opportunities to gain favor with AFSCME, whose pragmatic president, Gerald W. McEntee, has been focused on finding the Democrat with the best chance to beat President Bush.
While Dean's support for universal health care and opposition to the war in Iraq make him a natural fit for SEIU's backing, AFSCME's expected endorsement has stunned Democratic and union operatives. All year, McEntee has stressed his desire to find a Democratic nominee with credibility as commander-in-chief -- a threshold he had earlier suggested the former Vermont governor might have trouble crossing because of his views on Iraq.
This year, McEntee had clashed with SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, a potential rival for leadership in the union movement, over a labor project to turn out Democratic voters in 2004. Yet last week, when the SEIU was poised to endorse Dean, it was McEntee who called Stern asking him to delay the announcement to see if the two unions could act together.
Today's joint announcement will probably reverberate far more powerfully than an endorsement from either union alone. "This was Gerry's idea," Stern said. "He appreciated that the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts."
The announcement is expected after the AFSCME board meets in Washington this morning to finalize its support of Dean; the SEIU's board endorsed Dean on Thursday, according to sources.
Both endorsements have been among the most coveted in organized labor. Last spring, all the candidates trooped to Iowa for a forum AFSCME sponsored, and in September, they reconvened in Washington to pitch themselves to SEIU members.
Of the two unions, the SEIU established the more elaborate process for settling on a nominee. It asked the candidates to prepare videos for the union board explaining their positions on health care (a particular priority since almost half its members work in the health-care industry) and labor law reform. Stern also encouraged the contenders to meet with local union members around the country.
Union officials say Dean took that advice more to heart than any of the other Democrats; at the board meeting when the union voted to endorse Dean last week, Stern joked that the candidate "had talked to some of my key leaders more than I have in the past six months."
The union is mostly low-income and heavily minority; Dean's support has tilted toward better-educated, more-affluent white voters. Yet Dean made a strong connection with SEIU activists, campaign and union officials say. His emphasis on expanding access to health care -- and his background as a physician -- resonated with many of them.
Dean's opposition to the war in Iraq also helped him with the union's left-leaning membership, as did his argument that Democrats had been too timid in confronting Bush. "People want to hear somebody who expresses their values and unfortunately ... too many Democrats have tended to muddle their message," said Eliseo Medina, the Los Angeles-based executive vice president of the SEIU for the Western states.
Finally, the broader ethos of Dean's campaign -- with its stress on grass-roots organizing -- struck a chord among SEIU leaders, who emphasize such efforts. "Dean's message sounded like a union organizer's message," said Stern.
In September, Dean's strength was evident when the SEIU gathered 1,500 of its most politically active members in Washington to hear from the candidates, as well as to watch short movies of the contenders that the unions had dispatched independent filmmakers to create. Dean won a members' straw poll both before the candidates spoke and after they had made their presentations.
From that point, no one else appeared seriously in contention. The SEIU scheduled a meeting of its board for last Thursday with the intention of endorsing Dean and announcing the decision. Then came the call from McEntee to Stern.
Many labor observers consider Stern and McEntee rivals for influence inside the union federation -- a view that intensified last spring when McEntee resigned from the board of the Partnership for America's Families, a group labor had established to help mobilize Democratic voters in 2004. The Partnership is headed by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, a close Stern ally.
Other labor insiders say reports of tension between Stern and McEntee are exaggerated. Still, the two men appeared to be traveling on very different tracks to 2004. While Stern emphasized finding the candidate closest to the union's views, McEntee stressed electoral viability -- which to him included someone voters would consider a credible commander-in-chief.
With that emphasis, McEntee seemed cool to Dean, suggesting that his opposition to the Iraq war could hurt him in a general election. McEntee originally signaled a preference for Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
But by early last summer, McEntee had cooled on Kerry, fearing his campaign had stalled, union and Democratic sources say. He then flirted with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark. But AFSCME officials grew concerned about Clark's prospects as his campaign stumbled out of the gate. Clark burned his last bridge to AFSCME when he decided not to compete in the Jan. 19 caucuses in Iowa -- where the union is strong -- without informing McEntee, sources say.
Dean, meanwhile, had been courting local AFSCME leaders, replicating the strategy he employed with the SEIU. As McEntee was souring on Clark, some local union officials were urging the national leadership to take another look at Dean, sources say. Even so, AFSCME appeared on track to make an endorsement decision no earlier than December. As recently as Nov. 4, AFSCME had arranged for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri to meet with its Iowa activists as part of its decision process; that meeting was one reason Gephardt skipped the debate co-sponsored by "Rock the Vote" in Boston the same night.
The disclosure Thursday that AFSCME intended to join the SEIU in endorsing Dean caught all the campaigns, even Dean's, by surprise.
Labor and party sources see several factors in AFSCME's move. Some believe McEntee -- who burnished his reputation as a political kingmaker by endorsing Bill Clinton early in the 1992 Democratic race -- feared being eclipsed by Stern if the SEIU sided with Dean first. "You can't allow a new kingmaker to emerge," said a veteran Democratic strategist. "So how do you stop him? You marry him."
Other Democrats, though, including some in Dean's orbit, believe McEntee's shift reflects a broader reassessment in the party about Dean's prospects against Bush.
Dean insiders see two keys in AFSCME's impending decision: a growing conviction that he was the sole Democrat who could raise money to compete financially with Bush and a sense that amid continuing casualties and turmoil, Dean's Iraq war standmay not be the problem in the general election many expected.
Sources close to McEntee say he may have concluded Dean appears so likely to win the nomination that the union would be best served helping strengthen him for the general election. "The logic is, the quicker they hitch up and start working with this guy who is the probable nominee, the more likely this person could succeed in a general" election, said one Democratic strategist familiar with McEntee's thinking.