updated 2/1/2005 4:44:55 PM ET 2005-02-01T21:44:55

AFL-CIO leaders decided Tuesday not to make an endorsement in the race for Democratic National Committee chairman, a move that could make it harder for any of Howard Dean’s rivals to stop his push for the party leadership.

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“The AFL-CIO political committee decided Tuesday not to make an endorsement for DNC chair,” said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for the labor group.

The labor group instead offered general goals for the DNC such as further expanding grass-roots support and working on economic issues that affect organized labor.

Some Democrats who closely watch labor had said they doubted the unions would unite behind a Dean alternative with the front-runner surging ahead and labor facing its own internal power struggle.

“We’re confident we have support from DNC members affiliated with labor organizations, but we will continue to work hard to gain support,” said Dean spokeswoman Laura Gross.

Former Texas Rep. Martin Frost has pushed hard for labor backing that could give him a chance to derail Dean.

Dean appears to gain
The decision Monday by state party leaders to endorse Dean prompted many in the party to comment that Dean is looking unbeatable. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb dropped out of the race and endorsed Dean on Monday.

With the AFL-CIO staying out of the race, that leaves individual unions to decide whether to endorse a candidate. That dispersal of labor influence will make it tougher for any opponent to slow Dean’s march toward the chairmanship.

“Strengthening the state parties is a central part of our plan to make the Democratic Party competitive in every race, in every district, in every state and territory,” Dean said Monday, quickly adding that the campaign continues. “If elected DNC chair, we will make this vision a reality.”

Anti-Dean forces spin decision
Dean’s opponents tried to put a positive spin on Monday’s developments, but some privately acknowledged that Dean is in a very strong position.

Frost spokesman Tom Eisenhauer said “the fundamentals of the race are the same” and outlined the strengths that Frost would bring to the job as former leader of the Democrats’ congressional campaign committee.

Democratic activist Donnie Fowler’s campaign portrayed the race for chair as a “two-person race between Donnie Fowler and Howard Dean.” Dean won the endorsement of the Association of State Democratic Chairs with 56 votes, while Fowler finished second with 21.

Others like Frost, party activist Simon Rosenberg and former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer got the backing of only a few state leaders. Former Ohio Democratic chairman David Leland got no votes.

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