WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) is gaining ground in the Democratic presidential race, with the promise of an endorsement by the AFL-CIO (search), the support of a former rival and fresh polls pointing toward victory in next week's Wisconsin (search) primary.
Even so, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) vowed on Friday to remain in the race "well into March," and Howard Dean (search) campaigned for votes from Wisconsin's dairy farmers. They should be guaranteed a fixed price for their milk, he said, even if it costs consumers "a few pennies more for a gallon."
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney scheduled a meeting of the federation's general board for next Thursday "to officially endorse" Kerry, according to the memo obtained by The Associated Press.
AFL-CIO spokeswoman Lane Windham confirmed that Sweeney will recommend the move. "But we're a democratic organization and it is ultimately up to the general board to decide who they will endorse," said spokeswoman Lane Windham.
The AFL-CIO, with a membership of 13 million is one of the key pillars of the Democratic Party, and an endorsement of Kerry signals the groups desire to unite behind a challenger to begin the campaign against President Bush this fall.
With a few exceptions, the International Association of Fire Fighters prominent among them, organized labor has been slow in coming to Kerry's side.
In the run-up to the primary season, Rep. Dick Gephardt had the support of nearly two dozen individual unions. But Dean won the backing of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and kept Gephardt from getting the federation's overall endorsement.
Gephardt left the race after a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses last month, and AFSCME abandoned its backing of Dean last weekend.
The SEIU remains a supporter of the former Vermont governor, but officials have said that commitment is good only through the Wisconsin primary.
After winning 12 of 14 primaries and caucuses to date, Kerry is the runaway leader in the delegate chase. He has 540 in The Associated Press count, to 182 for Dean and 166 for Edwards. It takes 2,161 to win the nomination. Another 24 pledged delegates are at stake in caucuses in Nevada on Saturday, 16 in the District of Columbia and 72 more in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
The Democratic front-runner made his campaign rounds Friday while repeatedly denying having had an extramarital affair. "I just deny it categorically. It's rumor. It's untrue. And that's the last time I intend to" respond to questions about it, he told reporters who asked about reports on an Internet site.
With polls showing Kerry well ahead in Wisconsin, the Massachusetts senator flew to Madison.
Wesley Clark greeted him, a retired four-star Army general bestowing his endorsement on a Vietnam War-era Navy lieutenant.
"Sir, request permission to come aboard. The Army's here," said Clark, an Arkansas native who quit the race on Wednesday after winning only one primary and trailing badly in the delegate chase.
"This is the first time in my life I've ever had the privilege of saying welcome aboard to a four-star general," replied Kerry. "Normally, back when I was wearing a uniform, my knees would have been quaking around a four-star."
The Clark endorsement was a disappointment for Edwards, who had hoped to win the support of his fellow Southerner.
But the expected AFL-CIO endorsement of Kerry was fresh confirmation of the disintegration of Dean's candidacy. The front-runner in the polls and fund raising at the turn of the year, he has failed to win any primaries or caucuses thus far.
While he e-mailed supporters several days ago that Wisconsin would be a make-or-break test for him, he has since backed off.
Asked about his plans after next Tuesday, his answer was unclear.
"I'm going to go back to Burlington (Vermont) and regroup and figure out how to tackle 10 of the biggest states in America," he said as he stood before a 1970 John Deere tractor in dairy barn.
"A lot depends on what happens in Wisconsin."
An American Research Group poll suggested that what happens in Wisconsin will be similar to what has happened in 12 of the 14 states that have already held primaries or caucuses -- a win for Kerry. The Massachusetts senator had support from 53 percent of the voters surveyed, compared to 16 percent for Edwards and 11 percent for Dean.
Dean held a forum on economic issues Friday at a community college in Cleveland, Wis., and then headed south to Milwaukee, stopping first at the Wonderful World coffee shop in Sheboygan.
Shop owner and folk singer Judy Stock treated him to an impromptu song in Swahili, which she also sang in English. "Every burden shall be rolled away," she sang.
When asked whether he thought the lyrics were appropriate, Dean replied: "Very appropriate."
Edwards signaled his intention to stay in the race no matter what the outcome of next week's primary.
"First of all, the nomination process is going to go on for a while, well into March," the North Carolina senator said.
In a meeting with laid-off factory workers, he offered reassurance that his own background as the son of a mill worker meant he would do what he could to help them.
"I want you to know that there is somebody in this race for the president that will wake up every morning thinking about you," said the North Carolina senator.