With the official endorsements Wednesday from two of the country's largest unions, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean gained a large network of volunteers who leaders pledged would both campaign on his behalf and assist his goal of raising $200 million through small donations.
The full-throated backing Dean received from the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees handed the former Vermont governor organizational and financial coups as the 2004 presidential campaign heads into the primary season.
"We will work like hell night and day to make him our nominee because I know, as sure as I'm standing here, that he will work night and day for us," AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee told a few hundred cheering labor members packed into a ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel.
Leaders of the 1.4-million-member union voted to back Dean in a private meeting Wednesday after McEntee emphasized that he believed that AFSCME should endorse the candidate with the strongest likelihood of beating President Bush. At the rally that followed, he reiterated that message.
"We have a leader who represents our values and I believe and we all believe can defeat this president," McEntee said.
Earlier this year, McEntee suggested that he worried that Dean's unstinting opposition to the war with Iraq could hurt him among voters. But with questions growing about Bush policies in Iraq as violence continues in that country, McEntee indicated Dean's position was now a plus.
"Obviously the Iraq credential that he carries carried heavily with our people," he told reporters.
The 1.6-million-member SEIU had been set to announce its support of Dean last Thursday in Washington. But it held off after McEntee suggested to SEIU President Andrew L. Stern that a joint endorsement would have more impact.
Because nearly 40% of SEIU's members are ethnic minorities, Stern said Wednesday that his union's support demonstrates that Dean has successfully energized people beyond the upper-class professionals and young people opposed to the Iraq war who initially rallied around his candidacy.
"Our members who are very diverse responded for the last six months to Howard Dean, so all this discussion about the Birkenstocks, white Volvo crowd -- you should tell that to our home-care workers, our nursing home workers, our Head Start workers," Stern told reporters.
"Howard Dean has something to say and he's going to get people to the polls, and that's what's going to win this election," he added.
The twin endorsements represented a blow for Dean's opponents, particularly Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a longtime labor ally.
Still, Gephardt's campaign has been endorsed by 20 international unions, mostly representing blue-collar workers. And on Wednesday, Gephardt gained the endorsement of the Iowa state council of the United Automobile Workers.
Gephardt has focused on winning labor support in Iowa, where the nomination process begins with caucuses Jan. 19.
A jubilant Dean clasped the hands of the union leaders and raised them above his head as he received the joint endorsements. "This is an extraordinary thing, which you all have done over the last week," he said. "It's going to change America because it's going to put working people back in the driver's seat in this country."
The SEIU and AFSCME leaders said they hoped their move would be viewed as a sign that Democratic constituencies should coalesce around the Dean campaign.
"We would hope that by what we did today ... that maybe this begins to winnow the field," McEntee told reporters.
AFSCME, whose members hold a range of jobs at all levels of government, plans on spending about $7.5 million on an independent campaign to promote Dean's candidacy during the nomination process, including $1 million in Iowa. The union will spend another $3 million on a separate communication to its members, according to political director Larry Scanlon.
The most tangible effect of the union's endorsement may be the sheer number of people it can deliver to the polls. Scanlon said that polling has shown that about 70% of union members have voted for the candidate the union endorses.
In Iowa, AFSCME's 20,000 members include many longtime caucus-goers with familiarity with the process, Scanlon said. "They know how to run the operations when you get to the gymnasium or the church or whatever," he said. "That's a very valuable asset."
In addition, AFSCME will make a rare appeal for political donations and send an e-mail soon to its members asking them to contribute $100 to Dean's campaign, he added.
That looms as important help because Dean on Saturday announced he was opting out of the public finance system -- which limits how much a candidate can spend in seeking a presidential nomination -- and set a goal of persuading 2 million people to contribute $100 each to his campaign. He argued this would allow him to compete with President Bush, who has rejected public financing and hopes to raise at least $175 million for his campaign.
The SEIU, meanwhile, is poised to play a key role for Dean in the opening primary on Jan. 27 in New Hampshire, where it is the largest union with 7,500 members.
The union can also play a critical role in mobilizing voters for the March 2 contests in California and New York, where it represents a combined 880,000 members.
Dean will also get the benefit of the union's organizational skills -- many of SEIU's veteran organizers will lend their expertise to the campaign, according to union official Gina Glantz.
Glantz said the union will not directly ask for contributions to Dean from its members, almost half of whom work in the health-care industry. But she said that she expected many would donate on their own.
Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said the backing from SEIU and AFSCME would help the former Vermont governor persuade other constituency groups that he can beat Bush.
"They made it very clear that they wanted to get behind a Democrat that could beat George Bush," Trippi said. "So for those two unions to get together and jointly endorse is a huge statement about how far this campaign has come since the days when no one knew who Howard Dean was."