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WASHINGTON -- Wherever union leaders may go these days, Democratic presidential hopefuls follow, a must pursuit of a prized union endorsement.
Declared and potential candidates are making tracks to Iowa on Monday and to Florida the following week to court hundreds of union officials gathering for meetings.
"Democrats depend heavily on organized labor to help communicate the message, to turn voters out," said Robert Bruno, labor professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Labor still can make a difference to the success of presidential candidates, even when they're a smaller percentage of the work force."
About 13.5 percent of the work force belongs to a union, the lowest level in six decades, but labor still packs a powerful punch at the ballot box. Voter participation rates are declining, while unions have increased their turnouts.
The labor-courting ritual is taking on more urgency for both the Democrats and the unions for the 2004 presidential election.
Democrats want to recover from midterm election losses that put Republicans in control of both the House and Senate along with the White House. Unions are eager for a winner and a friendlier administration in power.
With stakes so high, no Democrat stands out in a field that grows larger weekly.
In Iowa, whose caucuses are the first campaign preliminary contest, state AFL-CIO president Mark Smith was bombarded with candidates' requests to address Monday's annual legislative conference in Altoona.
"When presidential candidates heard that there were going to be 100-plus union members, they said 'Oh, can we address it?' " Smith said. "I was going to allow that. But pretty soon, you've got four of them, and you screw up your whole conference."
So Smith added a forum for the candidates, giving them 15 minutes each, followed by a reception to mingle with the members.
Attending are Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, as well as Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is not yet a candidate but is expected to announce a decision soon.
Florida, which decided the White House race in 2000, is on the itinerary next week for several Democrats. Labor leaders get together for an AFL-CIO executive council meeting at the union-owned Diplomat Hotel and Spa in Hollywood, Fla.
No time has been set aside at the AFL-CIO meeting to hear from candidates, other than Gephardt, who was one of only two politicians invited to give status reports on Congress. The other is House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.