Robert Novak

While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama soak up news media attention, John Edwards has pushed for organized labor's support. No decisions have yet been made, but the former senator from North Carolina and 2004 vice presidential nominee is the front-runner for winning over the big, dynamic unions who left the AFL-CIO 18 months ago.

Edwards is a leading prospect for backing from Andrew Stern's Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and James P. Hoffa's International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the unions that led the breakaway forming the Change to Win Federation. Stern and Hoffa are wary of early decisions, and there are things about the Edwards operation their unions do not like. But their interest in him reflects largely unspoken discontent in Democratic ranks over choice limited to Clinton and Obama.

Withdrawal from presidential consideration of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana prompted the analysis that Clinton and Obama consume all political oxygen, leaving nothing for another candidate. But many labor leaders question Clinton's electability and worry about Obama's inexperience. While Warner and Bayh would have been positioned to front-runner Clinton's right, Edwards is on her left. That is no liability in seeking support from Change to Win unions.

While some of these unions fret about Edwards's closest political associates, he personally is a big hit with labor leaders who left the AFL-CIO unhappy about lack of fervor in recruiting new members. With the same eloquence and careful preparation that made him a multi-millionaire trial lawyer, Edwards boosts trade restrictions and other elements on organized labor's agenda.

Edwards's game plan begins with the caucuses in Iowa, the state where he burst out of the pack in 2004 by finishing second. A Des Moines Register poll last summer showed him ahead of Clinton there, and an October survey conducted for an environmental group gave Edwards a 20-percentage point lead over her. An Iowa win in 2008 could propel him into the New Hampshire primary with momentum, leading next to South Carolina -- the only state where he won a 2004 primary.

In addition to the SEIU and the Teamsters, Edwards has been making points with two other Change to Win unions: Unite Here (apparel and hotel-restaurant workers) and Laborers International. He is also popular with AFL-CIO unions, especially the Steelworkers, Iron Workers and Communications Workers. He won the AFL-CIO's Wellstone Award for backing labor initiatives in 2006.

The day is long past when Big Labor moved in lockstep. Stern, saying he was following SEIU's rank-and-file, backed Howard Dean in 2004. Hoffa supported his old law school classmate, Richard Gephardt. Both endorsed John Kerry as soon as he clinched the nomination and were not happy with him. Nobody is about to move before next summer, and labor sources say Stern will wait until September.

Edwards's unusual step selecting former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan as his national campaign manager, the first such task undertaken in his long political career, has been described as enlisting a laborite politician to woo labor. But Teamsters officials regard Bonior as less their friend than a friend of the United Auto Workers. Some feel Edwards would have been better advised to stick with his former campaign manager, Nick Baldick, an experienced political operative who has been given the task of advising Edwards on the early tests in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire. Baldick is renowned for saving Al Gore from oblivion in the 2000 New Hampshire primary.

The labor operatives pondering their '08 decisions also confess they are less than comfortable with a prominent role in the campaign by Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, who never has been a political spouse staying in the shadows. It is not good news for Edwards if some Teamsters are put off by the triumvirate of John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards and Dave Bonior.

However, Edwards's sunny aura and commanding presence can transcend the negative impact of anybody at his side. When Bayh dropped out last Saturday, there was speculation that Edwards would be the next to go. On the contrary, Edwards is where he wants to be, hoping for a big shove forward from labor.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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