HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri is labor's guy, a longtime, crucial ally on trade and about everything else. But whether he is labor's guy for president is less certain.
Gephardt is one of five Democratic presidential candidates who trekked to Florida this week to woo labor leaders attending an AFL-CIO executive council meeting. The others have come and gone, but Gephardt cleared his calendar for three days and has become part of the scenery here at the Diplomat Resort and Spa.
He's made no secret that he wants organized labor's endorsement.
"I think I'm going to get significant, important support from workers and labor unions," he said Tuesday. "And for a simple reason: I have shared their beliefs and I have bled and fought on their issues for 26 years in the United States House. They know that."
Union leaders across the board eagerly praise Gephardt and his loyalty through the years, and he was very well received when he addressed the council Tuesday. But that enthusiasm tempers a bit when the talk turns to Gephardt as president.
"He has a lot of advantages, but he has to run his race with our members and the voters before we could even begin think about what to do," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the AFL-CIO's most politically active unions.
"Candidates have to connect with voters and show they can put together a team and stand for some issues and look people in the eye and convince them," he said.
But some union officials have not been shy about talking up Gephardt, whose father was a Teamsters member. Those officials are frustrated that Gephardt may not be getting the serious consideration he should from labor.
"There's one candidate that stands out as the one who has earned the right to be heard," Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said Wednesday. "Dick was there when labor needed him."
The prospects for an AFL-CIO endorsement for Gephardt or any other candidate are slim. It requires two-thirds support of the 65 member unions, many of whom have divergent and even conflicting agendas.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has barred state federations and central labor councils from making endorsements until the federation acts. He also has urged national unions to wait.
"I don't believe that any candidate has enough strength within the AFL-CIO or the American labor movement ... to get an endorsement," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who also heads the federation's political committee.
"As allied as he has been, I don't think he will be able to do it, nor will anybody else."
Gephardt's campaign has been extremely sensitive about labor's backing, complaining loudly to union officials several weeks ago when McEntee said in an interview that he thought John Kerry would have the "best chance" to take on President Bush on foreign policy.
Gephardt, who lost the Democratic bid in 1988, reminds unions that he is the only candidate who has been through the process and can raise the money needed to get past the primaries.
"I am the only candidate who can win in the industrial heartland of the country," he said. "That's where George Bush will be beaten."
For some, beating Bush is key.
"I personally am looking at electability," said David Nefzger, political director for the United Steelworkers of America Local 8031 in Denver. "Gephardt would be a good president. But will he be able to mobilize the base of people that in 2002 stayed at home? I'm not sure he will."
Labor officials approved the creation of a $40 million, tax-exempt group, led by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, to educate and mobilize voters.
The Partnership for America's Families, or PAF, will also help labor remain a big money player in politics even with a new campaign finance law restricting so-called "soft money" - the unlimited contributions from businesses, unions and others used for party-building.
The program will focus on turning out not only union members, but also other Democratic supporters in key battleground states. The concept was approved, but not without tough questions and reservation from some members.
Buffenbarger said he was concerned that the plan lacked details such as oversight and management.
"I want to make sure PAF doesn't go poof," Buffenbarger said.