WASHINGTON -- Sparing Vice President Al Gore a major political embarrassment, the 13 million-member AFL-CIO appears likely to endorse Gore tomorrow over former Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Gore, who once took the powerful labor federation's early support for granted, plans to appear at the AFL-CIO's convention in Los Angeles to pick up the coveted endorsement.
The endorsement, a major victory for the vice president's limping campaign, would be the federation's earliest since its leaders backed Walter F. Mondale in 1983 in his campaign against President Ronald Reagan.
Federation leaders announced yesterday that they would start a $40 million effort to mobilize political support for their preferred candidates in the 2000 election. Rather than plow union money into political attack advertisements, AFL-CIO political leaders hope to energize their members at the grass-roots level.
But perhaps more importantly, an AFL-CIO endorsement would grant Gore a respite from the bad news that has dogged his campaign. Gore aides have stressed for months the importance of the labor endorsement, which they had expected to secure without a fight.
"Obviously, it's something the vice president's campaign expected, anticipated, and told everyone they would get," said Anita Dunn, a campaign adviser for Bradley, Gore's only rival for the Democratic nomination. "So it's not really a surprise."
Bradley had lobbied strenuously to block an early endorsement of Gore. He implored union leaders to delay the vote, hoping his campaign's momentum would persuade them that he was the Democrats' best hope for keeping the White House for another four years.
A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll released yesterday showed Gore with a 12 percentage-point lead over Bradley, down from 33 points last month. Gore has the backing of just over half the Democratic voters polled, but that is considerably less than the 63 percent that backed him early last month.
In the end, Gore persuaded the AFL-CIO's senior leadership that he needed organized labor's support now to prepare for a front-loaded primary-and-caucus season that is expected to be decided by March 7.
And AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, playing a decisive role, pushed his organization's member unions to endorse the vice president. Sweeney, a Gore ally, "really leaned into it," a Gore aide conceded, privately twisting arms, then publicly declaring that Gore had wrapped up the endorsement.
"More and more people are realizing it's really not early" for an endorsement, Sweeney told reporters.
Bradley aides refused to concede defeat in the endorsement fight, but they were already playing down the importance of the AFL-CIO's backing, calling the expected union nod nothing more than a "paper endorsement" extracted by Sweeney after some arm twisting. The vaunted grass-roots activism that the endorsement is supposed to represent will fail to materialize if rank-and-file union members and their leaders
do not share the same enthusiasm for Gore, they said.
Besides, the Bradley aides added, the endorsement would allow their candidate to again assume the mantle of the insurgent outsider.
Dunn said of Gore: "It sounds like he's a front-runner again."
Gore campaign officials insisted they were not taking the endorsement for granted. Gore is expected to arrive in Southern California this afternoon, and the vice president is scheduled to meet with AFL-CIO leaders tomorrow morning before the expected vote.
But privately, they said they are confident Gore has the two-thirds of the 700 convention delegates needed to secure the AFL-CIO's nod.
"There are definitely a lot of positive vibes being put out there, and that's a good sign," said one Gore adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Yesterday, 15 building and trades unions endorsed Gore, though those unions had been among the labor groups most leery of Gore's environmental record. And before they voted to back Gore yesterday, leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers had suggested that delaying a nomination vote would strengthen organized labor's hand in pressuring the Democratic candidates to embrace union issues.
Some unions -- such as the Teamsters, Steelworkers and auto workers -- plan to vote against a
Gore nomination, or at least to abstain. But Sweeney's pressure and Gore's personal attention appear to have swung enough votes.
Gore aides hope the endorsement will provide a much-needed victory after a string of campaign missteps that helped Bradley raise campaign cash and surge in the polls in key states.
"This has been the single biggest test of strength outside fund raising that will occur in 1999," a Gore campaign adviser said.
Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO's political committee invited the Gore and Bradley campaigns to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington to present not only their candidates' positions on issues but to show how they planned to secure the nomination and win the White House.
Bradley aides sought to portray the former New Jersey senator and basketball star as the candidate to beat Republican front-runner George W. Bush. Bradley adviser Will Robinson showed up with a fresh stack of Time magazines with Bradley on the cover.
But Gore officials appealed to the union leaders' understanding of the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party. Of the 4,335 party delegates who will select the party's nominee, 798 -- or almost 40 percent of the total needed to win the nomination -- are so-called superdelegates, not subject to the will of the voters. Of those 798, more than 400 have publicly endorsed Gore. Five have endorsed Bradley.
Pub Date: 10/12/99