Democratic front-runner John Kerry (search) won a huge labor endorsement Thursday when the 13-million member AFL-CIO threw its support behind the Massachusetts senator.
"The time has come to unite behind one man, one leader, one candidate," AFL-CIO (search) President John Sweeney said, calling Kerry a friend of the working man.
Workers chanted "Kerry! Kerry!" as the Massachusetts senator began a torrent of attacks against President Bush.
"Today we stand united in a common cause and that common cause is not just to defeat George Bush, but it is to put our country back on track, on the road of prosperity, the road of fairness, the road of jobs," Kerry told the crowd.
The announcement came as the two-man race for the Democratic nomination for president focused on jobs and trade as Kerry and John Edwards (search) continue their battle for the ballot. Kerry is hoping the union backing will blunt the recent attacks by Edwards on Kerry's trade positions.
This is a "critical point in this journey where there clearly is one candidate that has risen above the others with the skills, the experience, the toughness, the courage that will represent working families' interests and, more importantly than anything, will be the candidate that will defeat George W. Bush in November," Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters and Kerry campaign national co-chair, told Foxnews.com.
"When the AFL-CIO really steps in behind a candidate, it's more than just the federation as an institution — it really is a projection of every part of the fabric of this country as far as work sector," Schaitberger continued.
Edwards, however, says he's winning the battle for rank-and-file members who face the daily pressures of jobs losses.
"If you look at what's happened in the early primaries, I have not had the endorsement of labor unions and I've done very well," he said. "I will continue to speak directly to union households and working people."
Kerry and Edwards are prepping their strategies for Super Tuesday nights where a slew of delegate-rich states will cast their vote for whom they most want to run against Bush in November.
California, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, Vermont, Georgia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland will hold primaries and caucuses on March 2, with 1,151 delegates at stake, more than half of the 2,161 needed to claim the nomination.
Hawaii, Idaho and Utah will offer 61 delegates on Tuesday.
Kerry also on Thursday received the endorsement of nine-term Georgia Rep. John Lewis, which could help Kerry win Georgia's 86 delegates. Edwards has made Georgia a prime target and met with voters there Thursday.
NAFTA Could 'Strike a Vein'
Edwards has begun a tour of key political states that have lost manufacturing jobs. He plans to continue his criticism of Kerry for voting for the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (search), which many workers blame for job losses.
Edwards on Thursday called trade "a moral issue" that sets him apart from Kerry.
"When we talk about trade, we are talking about values," Edwards said at Columbia University.
Edwards also wants to debate Kerry within the next month.
"It would be a loss if Senator Kerry and I did not debate these issues — did not give the people of New York and the people of America these choices," he said.
After attending a fund-raising event in New York, Edwards headed to Florida for another.
Kerry has maintained that both he and the North Carolina lawmakers have many of the same views on the subject; they both voted for normalized trade relations with China and both want to see labor and environmental standards addressed in trade pacts.
"We're surprised that John Edwards has turned negative so quickly," said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.
Doug Schoen, a pollster for former President Bill Clinton, said, "there's a risk that NAFTA could strike a vein."
Just 'High-Blown Rhetoric'?
Bush's re-election spokesman, Terry Holt, told Fox News Thursday that although Edwards has been saying he'll stay above the fray of dirty politics, the Southerner has been attacking Bush.
"I think his idea of positive is that he doesn't attack Dennis Kucinich (search)," Holt said, referring to the Ohio congressman who hasn't won a single race.
Holt also responded to Kerry's attacks on Bush about the handling of the war in Iraq, war on terror and other topics that highlight the New Englander's own inconsistencies.
"[Kerry] would have relied on a permission slip from the United Nations and the French" before ousting Saddam Hussein, Holt said. "Saddam Hussein is better off in prison than he was in power."
"The president has taken the war on terror to the terrorists and I think the American public supports that," he added.
Holt added that whereas Kerry has attacked Bush for not supporting military pay increases, the president has increased military pay 20 percent since taking office and Kerry himself voted for military cuts, and against meal benefits and additional body armor for U.S. troops.
"There are a lot of differences between the record of John Kerry and this high-blown rhetoric we've heard over the last few weeks," Holt said.
Bush in Peril?
A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that the primary season has been good for Democrats and tough on Bush.
About 45 percent of those surveyed now view the candidate field positively, compared to 31 percent a month earlier. Bush's approval rating, meanwhile, still is positive at 53 percent, but that compares with 72 percent last April, shortly after the fall of Baghdad.
Bush's job-approval rating has dropped to 48 percent, the first time in his presidency that it has fallen below 50 percent, according to the poll.
Bush's economic team may also be giving the Democrats more fuel to add to their fire against the incumbent.
Kerry has jumped on offhand remarks and mixed signals by some of the president's economic pros that suggest the White House is backing off its earlier prediction that the economy would add 2.6 million new jobs this year.
"As the Democratic nomination becomes increasingly clear, the Bush presidency becomes increasingly imperiled," Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville wrote in a strategy memo Thursday.
"For some time, we have argued that Bush's high approval ratings and even likeability were rooted in a post-9/11 period that made Bush's success indispensable to people's security. But as people now enter a new period and face a political choice, a new framework is taking form, which leaves Bush in grave danger."
Kerry's advisers said Super Tuesday gives him a chance to campaign and advertise in two states that will be critical to defeating Bush in the fall — Ohio, which Bush won by less than 4 percentage points after Al Gore pulled out his resources; and Minnesota, a traditionally Democratic state that Gore won by just 2 percentage points.
Meanwhile, both primary candidates are hoping to win voters who backed Howard Dean until he dropped out of the race Wednesday following a winless primary season. There are no expectations the former Vermont governor will endorse either Kerry or Edwards.
But Dean's former campaign chairman, Steve Grossman (search), is expected to soon join the Kerry camp.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Steve Centanni and The Associated Press contributed to this report.