Howard Dean (search) lost the support of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on Saturday, yet another blow for a candidacy depleted by defeat.

Democratic officials said Gerald McEntee (search), head of the union, delivered the news to the former Democratic front-runner in a meeting in Burlington, Vt.

The heads of two other unions supporting Dean also attended the session, added these officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Officials at one, the Service Employees International Union (search), said the organization remained committed to Dean at least through the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17. The head of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades also was in attendance at the meeting, and Dean officials said the union was still aboard. Officials for the labor group could not be reached for comment about his plans.

Dean has said he must win Wisconsin to remain in the race.

Ironically, the blow came as Dean scored the best showing of a campaign season filled with disappointments.

He gained 30 percent of the vote in caucuses in Washington. That was far behind the winner, Sen. John Kerry (search), but represented his highest percentage of any of the 11 states to hold primaries or caucuses to date.

He also finished a distant second to Kerry in Michigan caucuses.

In a statement that pointed to his showing in Washington, Dean said voters "have sent a clear message that they want this race and this debate to continue. ..."

"We look forward to tomorrow's Maine caucuses and winning Wisconsin on the 17th."

The loss of AFSCME (search) denies Dean valuable organizers, money and political contacts at the worst possible time: The one-time front-runner is fighting for his political life after going winless in the primary season to date.

Coming from one of the party's major players, McEntee's decision underscores how far Dean's campaign has fallen — from the undisputed leader six weeks ago to the brink of political obscurity. McEntee is one of Dean's earliest backers from the ranks of the Democratic elite. McEntee's early endorsement of Bill Clinton helped propel the then-Arkansas governor to the presidency.

But the union leader is no kingmaker this year. He had flirted with backing Kerry and Wesley Clark at different points last year, before jumping on Dean's bandwagon when the former Vermont governor was leading in polls and fund-raising. It was unclear whether the union would back any other candidate, though campaign strategists said they suspected McEntee will want to join the flood of endorsements going Kerry's way.

Dean issued a statement that appeared to acknowledge AFSME's defection, saying "We respect President McEntee and we will work hard to earn the support of AFSCME members in Wisconsin next week."

Dean retreated from Michigan, Washington state and Maine — site of this weekend's elections — to make a last stand in Wisconsin, where Democrats vote Feb. 17.

The campaign planned to start its Wisconsin ad run with its 60-second biographical commercial in every media market in the state. It also planned to announce an ad contest Sunday, asking the public to submit commercials for the campaign to run eventually.

One official said McEntee would announce the defection next week after consulting with his board, but another said the timing was uncertain.

AFSCME, one of the nation's politically powerful labor unions, spends more on politics than any other union. The union $40 million on politics in 2000.

In a telephone interview, Neel said that Dean would have more resources at his disposal in Wisconsin than any of his rivals, front-runner John Kerry included.

"We're going to be up in the air with television advertising within 48 hours, Tuesday at the latest," he said.

"We've got an enormous ground operation there. We have collapsed all of our field staff from earlier states" into Wisconsin

In addition, he said Wisconsin is a "good progressive state" that should be receptive to Dean's antiestablishment message.

After faltering in Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean made little effort to compete in Saturday's caucuses in Michigan or Washington. Nor does he plan to contest primaries next Tuesday in Virginia and Tennessee.

In an early morning e-mail on Thursday, he told his Internet-savvy supporters he would make Wisconsin his last stand and appealed for a fresh infusion of cash to buy advertising needed to contest Kerry there.