updated 12/11/2003 12:05:34 PM ET 2003-12-11T17:05:34

Now that Al Gore has endorsed Howard Dean, party and labor leaders in Iowa are divided about the announcement’s impact on the closely contested race — and just as many Iowans remain undecided about which candidate they’ll support on caucus night Jan. 19.

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“Certainly, the endorsement is a nice thing to have and a feather in the cap for Governor Dean,” said Mark Daley, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party. “It’s 40 days away and there’s a large number of undecided. It will be interesting to see how they break and whether the Gore endorsement sways them or not.”


The Dean campaign and its backers in Iowa viewed the endorsement as a boost for the former Vermont governor as he tries to sway Democrats in a state famous for independent minds.

Those backing Rep. Dick Gephardt, who won Iowa in his unsuccessful White House bid in 1988 with strong support from labor, dismissed the Gore factor and remained focused on the neck-and-neck race in the state.


Others, meanwhile, questioned whether Gore’s word alone would be enough to persuade undecided voters to vote for Dean and crack the labor bloc Gephardt has counted on for victory. If Gore were to crisscross the state as he did when he was a candidate, some believe, then he might give Dean the edge he could need to win.

'A couple of percentage points'
“In Iowa, it probably means no more than a couple of percentage points,” David Loebseck, a professor from Mount Vernon who backs Dean, said of the Gore endorsement. Added Jeff Link, who ran Gore’s Iowa campaign in 2000, “Forty days is a lifetime.”


Practicalities aside, Gore’s announcement lifted the spirits of Dean supporters in the state. “It just pushes it over the edge,” said Megan Secord, whose union representing 20,000 state workers has backed Dean. “It gives us strength and it validates our decision in Iowa.”


In his 2000 presidential bid, Gore had labor’s imprimatur, including the rare backing, in a primary race, of the AFL-CIO. The only other Democrat to get that early broad endorsement was Walter Mondale in 1984.


Another union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which unanimously endorsed Gore in 2000, gave its support to Dean at the national level last month, as did the Service Employees International Union.

'Seals the deal'
“The energy level has been elevated, and this seals the deal for our members to see Dean all the way to the White House,” said Jan Corderman, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61.


That could be trouble for Gephardt forces. The Missouri congressman, who has carried labor’s banner in the House for 27 years, has strong union support in Iowa, with backing from unions representing some 54,000 workers. Their support gives him the organizational muscle to turn out members for the neighborhood meetings next month.


Still, Pat Marshall, a veteran union activist from Cedar Rapids, thinks many union activists whose organizations have already endorsed Gephardt will find themselves conflicted. “They are going to have to think it over,” Marshall said.


Mark Smith, spokesman for Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, discounted the impact Gore’s endorsement would have on labor in the state.


“I’m not dissing Al Gore, I just don’t think it’s a factor among union folks,” Smith said. “I don’t think that there were any union activists who were sitting around being undecided waiting for Al Gore to come out.”


Nor does an endorsement make a campaign better organized or more effective in getting out the vote. Democrat Bill Bradley had plenty of endorsements when he lost Iowa to Gore four years ago.


'It's who has the best plan'
“It’s not a popularity contest. It’s who has the best plan, the best ground organization — who has really worked the hardest,” said Mitch Gross, a 2000 national convention delegate. “I’m sure all of the candidates would have loved to have the endorsement, but I don’t see it as making a difference on caucus night.”


Another question is how many Iowans were put off by the secrecy behind the Gore-Dean alliance and Gore’s treatment of Joe Lieberman. The Connecticut senator had withheld a decision to run until Gore declined to challenge President Bush — and then didn’t rate a phone call before the announcement broke Monday.


“We thought it was kind of a shady deal, especially when he didn’t tell his ex-running mate Lieberman before he made the endorsement,” said Dirk Downs, a community action program chairman for UAW Local 838 in Waterloo. “I don’t know if it will make any difference, really.”


Any significant help from Gore in Iowa may come only if he pulls on his boots and goes town to town on behalf of Dean. The former vice president remains popular in the state he narrowly won in the general election against Bush.


“The nominating calendar is certainly front-loaded and Governor Dean can’t be here every day. Sending in a strong surrogate like Gore would help him,” Daley said.


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