IMAGE: Hillary and Bill Clinton
Stan Honda  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and former President Bill Clinton at a September campaign rally at Market Square in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
updated 10/23/2007 12:12:59 PM ET 2007-10-23T16:12:59

Not that Sen. Hillary Clinton is expecting a crisis at the upcoming MSNBC Democratic debate in Philadelphia, but, just in case she has a bad night she has a pick-me-up scheduled for later next week: an endorsement from the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

I’m told by labor sources that the endorsement will come next Thursday after a series of AFSCME committee meetings. The union, whose members by definition are no strangers to politics, has 30,000 members in the crucial caucus state of Iowa, plus 90,000 in Michigan and 110,000 in Florida – two other “early” states in the nomination process. 

And so the Clinton Family Machine grinds on.  The president of AFSCME, Gerald McEntee, goes back a long way with the Clintons, to the early stages of the 1992 presidential campaign. McEntee took a flier on a then-obscure governor of Arkansas. The AFSCME endorsement provided Bill Clinton with an important early foothold in a labor movement that had doubts about him. Not surprisingly, McEntee became a White House favorite.

Lord knows Hillary’s campaign could still implode – half the country, according to a new Zogby poll, claims that they would never vote for her for president – but with each passing day the evidence mounts of just how methodical her campaign is, and just how much it is built on the legacy and contacts of her husband’s career.

In the case of AFSCME the back story is yet another example of how the Clinton husband-and-wife team works together as they strive to move back into the White House. 

Hillary has diligently done her part as senator from New York, championing AFSCME causes in Congress. Her husband has pitched in by keeping in close personal contact with McEntee, who began organizing a half-century ago in Philly with pioneering appeals to local government workers

The AFSCME bill of sale was a sale by Bill, who called McEntee to privately make Hillary's case. 

McEntee’s commitment to the Clintons was reinforced by the events of 2004. Like a number of other labor leaders, McEntee fell under the spell of Howard Dean’s early, net-based surge.  His union endorsed Dean, only to see his campaign implode after the infamous “Scream” defeat at the hands of Sen. John Kerry in Iowa.  That experience – he was left high and dry with a loser – was enough to cure McEntee of any residual fascination he might have had for Internet-based phenomena, including Sen. Barack Obama.

Instead, McEntee has opted for the safe establishment harbor; he hardly needed the encouraging phone calls he got from his old pal, Bill.  At first glance, union endorsements do not mean much anymore. Union membership is a third of what it was a generation ago, as a percentage of the population. But labor still has enormous clout in the Democratic primaries, and in the general election they have learned how to reach to the perimeter of “union families,” which, depending on how broadly you define them, account for a quarter of the electorate.

Hillary Clinton is jousting for union support primarily with former Sen. John Edwards.  They are both doing well, which is bad news for Obama. Clinton has the American Federation of Teachers and Machinists as her major catches so far; Edwards has the Steelworker and Miners, and pieces of the Service Employees. “It’s mostly Hillary and Edwards out there,” one labor insider told me. “Obama just isn’t much of a factor.  “

Sen. Chris Dodd has the Fire Fighters, whose water he has carried in the Senate for decades. It was a noble gesture by Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, but also a shrewd way to park his union in a safe spot until the bandwagon rolls for someone else.

Bill Clinton is less useful as a Hillary ambassador to industrial unions, who still are furious with the former president for championing the NAFTA free trade agreement. But his ties to and touch are powerful with public-employee and teachers unions, and he has been making whatever calls Hillary needs him to make.

If you have any doubt about the shared nature of the Clinton enterprise, read Sally Bedell Smith’s new book about the duo, “For Love of Politics. It’s an exhaustively researched account of their shared ambition and operating habits as two halves of the same political brain.  One of the many memorable scenes in the book depicts the private quarters of the White House on the day the Senate voted on whether to convict the president of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. In the end, the Senate voted “no,” but Hillary wasn’t watching the proceedings. Instead she was hunkered down with one of Bill’s political advisors, Harold Ickes, in her first detailed discussion of how she could run for the Senate in New York.

As one Clinton electoral career was teetering on the brink, the other one was about to be born.

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