In the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, no endorsement by a special-interest group will be more important than the nod Vice President Al Gore got this week from organized labor.
The backing of the 13.1 million-member AFL-CIO, which came earlier in the campaign season than usual, represents money, on-the-ground organization, and big positive headlines - all of which the struggling Gore campaign has craved.
And even though organized labor isn't the force it once was in American life, its role in electoral politics - along with that of all the other liberal interest groups - is more important to the Democrats than ever. Since the 1960s, the Democratic Party has shrunk as a percentage of the total electorate, from about 45 percent down to about one-third. In effect, it's been reduced to its "base," those core constituencies that turn out in primaries and do the footwork in general elections.
The challenge for politicians is not to appear captive of these groups. "Candidates have to be very careful to say, "You're with me more than I'm with you," says political analyst Bill Schneider, observing the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.
Vice President Gore and his only challenger for the Democratic nomination, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, are battling hard to win the support of the numerous constituencies that make up the Democratic coalition, including labor, blacks, Hispanics, feminists, environmentalists, and gay groups.
So far, more than a year before the general election, few groups have issued endorsements. Senator Bradley won headlines last month when the 20,000-member environmental group Friends of the Earth backed him over Gore. But that small plum has more symbolic value than anything else - and arguably even works to Gore's favor, since it takes a bit of the luster off his image as an environmentally left-wing tree-hugger.
In the end, Bradley faces an uphill battle to wrest endorsements from Gore, who remains the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, despite Bradley's strong showing in polls in early-primary states.
Bradley has worked hard to woo the black vote, for example, making a rare appearance in Harlem and highlighting his support among some black basketball stars, harking back to his own days as a pro standout. (There's even talk that retired superstar Michael Jordan may endorse Bradley and make some ads for him. Mr. Jordan has already given the Bradley campaign money.)
Still, Gore remains the prohibitive favorite to take the bulk of the African-American vote, especially in the South, where the black vote is most concentrated. Gore's appointment of Donna Brazile as his new campaign manager - the first black woman ever to run a presidential campaign - is, for activists on race issues, merely icing on the cake.
Gore's real strength among African-Americans comes from his boss, President Clinton, who enjoys nearly universal support among blacks. But Gore comes with his own credentials as a Southern supporter of civil rights. Older African-Americans may remember Gore's father, a senator from Tennessee, who famously opposed some of the most racist elements of the South.
Bradley, in contrast, has little profile or campaign organization in the South, which represents a third of the national electorate.
Also working in Gore's favor is the rising black presence in organized labor, as the public-employee unions and service-employee unions grow. What this means is that the labor movement's organizational skills in getting voters to turn out will also help boost black turnout - which favors Democrats more consistently than do labor voters (who are about 60 percent Democratic).
"If Bradley is going to somehow break out, it's not going to be with Southerners and it's not going to be with blacks," says David Bositis, a black public-opinion expert at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of liberal activists, Bradley has apparently sensed an opening on Gore's left and tried to refashion himself as slightly more liberal than his record as a senator would suggest. But in reality, say Democratic activists, the Gore-Bradley duel is a fight between two centrists.
"I think you're going to see very healthy competition between the two ... to claim the mantle of the liberal reformer in a number of areas," says Roger Hickey, with the Campaign for America's Future. "Some might say that may hurt the nominee in the general election."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society