John Kerry (search) wasn't labor's first pick. Or its second. His nomination has forced some unions to hold their noses.

But it's an election that is less about Kerry than ousting President Bush.

"We cannot afford four more years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney (search) and all their cronies," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the second-largest union in the AFL-CIO (search) with 1.5 million members.

"They've attacked us enough," said McEntee, whose union endorsed Howard Dean in the primaries. "They've done enough damage to our country. It's time for them to go."

AFSCME was joined by the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union in its primary endorsement of Dean, the former Vermont governor whom they believed had the best chance to beat Bush. Most of the other major unions supported Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. The AFL-CIO remained neutral, and Kerry received endorsements from just two mid-sized unions.

Unions are the voter mobilizers for the Democratic Party, and the AFL-CIO is spending $44 million this election cycle to turn people out for Kerry. Individual unions have their own separate budgets to do the same. But labor's political muscle was questioned when the two candidates with the most union strength — Dean and Gephardt — fizzled in Iowa.

Kerry surged ahead, securing the nomination. And labor had to build a relationship with a candidate it didn't fervently support.

Bush has helped.

"Bush has unified the Democratic Party and the labor movement like no Democrat could do," said Mike Mathis, political director for the Teamsters union, which endorsed Gephardt, bypassing Kerry because of his support for trade pacts that many unions blame for sending American jobs to Mexico and overseas.

Justin Shields, a United Food and Commercial Workers member from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said Kerry doesn't always electrify big crowds and TV audiences but thrives in smaller groups and one-on-one. That's how Iowans got to know him.

"He's a bright, energetic and caring person," said Shields, who supported Kerry despite his union's Gephardt endorsement. "He had the reputation of being aloof until people got a chance to meet him, and he shot right to the top."

But Kerry has work to do.

"There's a strong case against Bush," said Harold Ickes, a former top aide to President Clinton who now heads a multimillion-dollar independent effort to put another Democrat in the White House. "What has to occur now is the case for Kerry."

Kerry was considered the front-runner early last fall, with McEntee and other major labor political players openly flirting with endorsements. But his candidacy failed to catch fire.

Voters from union households, a reliable Democratic constituency, have longed for more charisma from a candidate with strong marks for supporting labor issues.

Kerry "doesn't warm anybody up," and labor must help him create an emotional bond if fence-sitting members are to vote for him, union focus groups found in the spring.

"I think he's evolving into a superlative politician," said Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. "I think that campaigning is something that you learn, and he gets better every day."

Peter Wright, 58, political director for AFSCME Local 93 in Massachusetts, said he has worked with Kerry for more than two decades and unions in the state love him.

Kerry, faced with protesting police officers at a recent conference here, declined to cross the picket line to deliver a speech. Unions that had threatened to picket the convention before they won contract agreements were walking a fine line because they like Kerry.

"No one wanted to hurt John or embarrass him," Wright said. "He has a superb relationship with every union in Massachusetts."