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State by state, a powerful union comes to Edwards' aid

October 15, 2007 |  4:09 pm

John Edwards suffered a blow last week when the the Service Employees International Union decided it would make no national endorsement in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. But his concerted effort to embrace causes espoused by the labor group -- which represents a wide swath of healthcare workers, as well as janitors, various government employees and others -- has paid off after all.

SEIU leaders at the state level were given free rein to back a candidate, and early today Edwards was rewarded with the nod from the Iowa chapter. Every little bit helps in the state where the nomination battle officially begins, but the union is not exactly a heavy hitter in Iowa -- it boasts only about 2,000 members.

Turns out, though, the move by the Iowans was simply the start of a deluge. This afternoon, SEIU chapters in nine states signed up to help Edwards -- including California (656,000 members), Washington state (103,000 members), Michigan (70,000 members) and Oregon (46,000 members).

Look for a fair number of these folks to be making plane reservations to Des Moines -- the SEIU's national leaders ruled that chapters endorsing the same candidate can join forces on behalf of their choice.

Conversely, a chapter that lines up behind a particular candidate cannot engage in political work in a state where the SEIU members have made a different pick.

This is bad news for Barack Obama, who today won the support of the Illinois and Indiana union chapters (combined, they have about 170,000 members).

Edwards has bent over backwards to offer himself ...

as the candidate most closely aligned with the interests of working stiffs -- especially those with lower-paying jobs -- and the endorsements from the SEIU chapters provide a strong validation of that claim. Indeed, as he this evening began a three-day, event-filled jaunt through Iowa, he immediately spotlighted his new best friends.

Several SEIU leaders joined him for an appearance at a medical research building in Iowa City, including Californian Sal Rosselli, president of the union's United Healthcare Workers-West unit. He declared that Edwards would be nothing less than "the best labor president in the history of the United States.”

Even as Edwards basks in such comments, the ghosts of Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean must haunt his campaign in Iowa. In the 2004 Democratic primary fight, Gephardt's effort in Iowa was powered -- almost solely, as it turned out -- by support from the nation's older unions. Dean, meanwhile, had secured the national backing of the SEIU and other newer labor organizations.

Both men saw their presidential hopes effectively end with poor showings in the Iowa caucuses (the surprise of Edwards' second-place finish was topped only by John Kerry capturing first place). So will it be different this time around? Will help from key labor activists translate into a better result for their candidate on caucus night?

In Edwards' case, it just might. After running -- and doing well -- in Iowa last time around, he has done a good job of maintaining a network of loyalists. Aides with other Democratic campaigns, in moments of candor, give the Edwards' operation a tip of the hat, largely due to the intensity of his backing. So, potentially, the SEIU members who travel to Iowa from Los Angeles and Seattle and Detroit and elsewhere will plug into an efficient, well-oiled network that knows how to make effective use of their time and energy.

It would seem that the Edwards plan for derailing the Hillary Clinton express and overcoming the enthusiasm Obama generates would hinge on such a scenario.

-- Don Frederick