WASHINGTON -- With the first presidential caucuses and primaries still nearly four months away, Vice President Al Gore is facing another test of his political credibility next week -- a decision by the AFL-CIO on whether to endorse him or delay the decision.
The informed opinion now is that Gore will get the endorsement, though it is by no means assured. In most presidential election cycles, Big Labor's support for a sitting Democratic vice president would be pro forma.
But Gore's uncertain campaign has given his rival for the nomination, Bill Bradley, the grounds to question whether the unions might be moving too fast.
In meetings with labor union leaders these days, the former senator from New Jersey and his advisers make their case with slides designed to suggest that Gore has money problems that could threaten his viability in the primaries and general election.
The Gore campaign counters with a report that it will have $23 million to $24 million after federal matching funds become available Jan. 1.
The vice president's advocates, including his campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, and a consultant, Tad Devine, also walk the labor leaders through the advantages Gore enjoys from the way the nominating process works.
Despite skidding poll numbers, they point to the delegate support the vice president can count on from so-called superdelegates -- public and party officials who will represent about 20 percent of the total.
The stakes are high. If the endorsement is delivered, Gore can expect significant union money and staffing in the primary and caucus campaign. If a decision is delayed, the AFL-CIO's attitude will be seen as another sign of the vice president's campaign stumbling.
The expectation that Gore will get the endorsement is common to both campaigns, though obviously qualified.
"I think we're in pretty good shape," said Gore's adviser Devine. "We've worked really hard to get it done."
Will Robinson, a consultant working with Bradley, described the efforts to delay an endorsement now as still a little short. "We're at about 48 percent for no endorsement," he said.
"There's very little problem with Gore with anybody," said Vic Kamber, a Democratic consultant who has worked for many unions. "They almost have to endorse him. If they don't do it now, it will embarrass him after all the press [attention] and everything about it."
But the doubt within Big Labor is a microcosm of the doubt within the Democratic Party, and there is essentially only one issue: Can Al Gore win the election next year?
Several unions have polled members and found Gore favored over Bradley. But the results are not entirely convincing to political operatives, who also see the vice president as threatened by the likely Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, in the general election. At the least, there is some resistance to Gore.
One ranking operative of the AFL-CIO said, for example, that in focus groups of union workers organized by the federation, "it was easy to move them off Bush" by pointing to his positions on right-to-work laws and the minimum wage.
But Gore was still a hard sell because of his defense of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and "they think he's a tree-hugger," meaning too committed to environmental causes at the possible expense of jobs.
The politicking has been intense. Gore has met with many key union leaders, and Coelho and Devine have made the rounds to argue his case.
Donna Brazile, Gore's new campaign manager, has used her longtime contacts in organized labor to press for support with some locals. A few unions, including the Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of Teachers, have endorsed the vice president.
On the other side, Robinson and Gina Glantz, Bradley's campaign manager, have been making the case for the former New Jersey senator, whose personal appeals and videos have struck responsive nerves with some unions.
The Bradley campaign has no illusions about winning the endorsement now. The campaign is instead suggesting to the unions that they wait a while and look at some polls and perhaps some primary results.
The key element now may be the fact that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has made no bones about his support for the vice president, though he has also insisted that he wants a broad consensus of member unions. Sources say that officials of several major unions who would rather delay the endorsement have nevertheless sent word to Sweeney: "If you need our vote, John, you've got it."
The unions seeking a delay include the Auto Workers, the Machinists, the Electrical Workers, the Painters, and the huge Service Employees Industrial Union, from which Sweeney rose to lead the federation. The president of the service employees union, Andy Stern, has favored a delay, but other union officials say that if push comes to shove, he can be counted.
"Andy's not going to stiff Sweeney, I can tell you that," said a federation official who asked to remain anonymous.
Electability aside, Gore has problems with some of the building-trades unions, notably the Laborers' Union, because he has not made a personal effort to build rapport with its leaders.
"In some ways, this is like a junior high school election," a Gore campaign staff member said privately.
But the central problem for the vice president's campaign is the perception that it is suddenly in trouble and didn't recognize danger signals earlier.
The situation with labor, said James Duffy, an unaligned Democratic consultant, "is symptomatic of the whole problem of the Gore campaign. They took everything for granted, and now they are starting to get some misfires."
On campaign issues, there is little for labor to use as litmus tests.
Gore and Bradley have similar ratings from the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education for their time in the Senate. Some of the vice president's staff members sniff that it was far easier for Bradley to win a high rating from the Committee on Political Education as a senator from New Jersey than for Gore to do it representing Tennessee.
But this endorsement decision has far less to do with such ratings than with poll numbers.
"If Gore was up 20 points right now, there would be a different mood," said a federation official who asked not to be identified. "But we've got union political directors saying, 'I don't think the guy can win.' That's what this is all about."
Pub Date: 10/08/99