WASHINGTON -- Two of the nation's largest labor unions formally tapped Howard Dean yesterday as the candidate likeliest to defeat President Bush and pledged their manpower, money, and a grass-roots mobilization to help him win the Democratic nomination and the White House in 2004.
The joint endorsement by the 1.4-million member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the 1.6-million member Service Employees International Union represented not only a big victory for the insurgent Dean from the heart of the Democratic Party establishment, but also a vindication of Dean's careful wooing of key labor leaders, an effort that is expected to continue as he seeks the support of unions of teachers and auto, electrical, and communications workers.
"In the labor movement, everything is relationships. Over the last six or eight months, Governor Dean became committed to getting union support, getting to know their issues and their members, and proving that he understands the importance of labor unions to this country," said Bob Muehlenkamp, a longtime labor activist and adviser to Dean's campaign. "The leaders got to know him and like him, and it just grew and grew and grew."
Muehlenkamp said Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has won the endorsements of more than 20 labor unions representing 35 percent of membership in the 64-union AFL-CIO, had assumed support from SEIU and AFSCME, but their campaigns did not raise the money or generate the enthusiasm that labor leaders sought. Gephardt's early support for the president on the war in Iraq also hurt him, Muehlenkamp said.
"Dean is the most electable. He's the guy who can beat Bush," said the AFSCME president, Gerald W. McEntee. "I think Dean had great courage in terms of [opposing the war in] Iraq early on, before anybody else did, and his judgment was right."
McEntee initially showed interest in Kerry and then urged retired Army General Wesley K. Clark to enter the Democratic race. He said Dean lacked foreign policy experience, but added the union would provide "advice and counsel." McEntee said: "He's got to find a running mate, a vice-presidential candidate who can add to that."
In a jab timed to the AFSCME announcement, Kerry campaign workers circulated letters yesterday they said Dean wrote as governor of Vermont in which he offered support for privatizing government jobs -- a position opposed by AFSCME, whose core membership includes government workers.
One letter, dated Sept. 13, 1993, to Leon E. Panetta, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, said: "Privatization undertaken with fairness, and carefully monitored, can deliver better public services at lower costs."
In another to a constituent, dated July 27, 1998, Dean wrote, "I can tell you that the state of Vermont relies on the outsourcing of certain State functions in order to save taxpayers money. Overall, I have found that private contractors can perform the same service for less money while maintaining a high level of quality."
Jay Carson, a Dean spokesman, said: "Governor Dean is a stalwart supporter of federal, state, and municipal workers. Nothing lends more credence to that than the endorsement of AFSCME today." He also criticized Kerry for missing a recent Senate vote on a Bush administration proposal to privatize some federal jobs.
During a news conference in a hotel room filled with union employees wearing purple SEIU jackets, green AFSCME T-shirts, or the black hard hats of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which has endorsed Dean, McEntee pledged to mobilize the largest and most aggressive grass-roots campaign in labor history on behalf of a candidate who McEntee said would restore jobs and and economic security to working Americans.
"This is the most important election of our lifetime," McEntee said. "Together we can defeat the most antiworker, antifamily, antidemocratic president and his fat-cat friends."
Andrew L. Stern, SEIU's president, said his union -- constituted of health care workers, janitors, and security guards -- did not view Dean as the candidate of the "Birkenstock and Volvo crowd" and was "totally comfortable" with Dean, a physician.
Dean said he would stand up for "ordinary people," and he accused President Bush of "playing the race card" in describing college affirmative action. "That alone entitles him to a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas," Dean told members of AFSCME and SEIU, unions with large populations of African-American and Hispanic members.
Meanwhile, Gephardt picked up the endorsement yesterday of the 36,000-member Iowa affiliate of the United Auto Workers union. That increases to about 95,000 the number of Iowa members in labor unions that have endorsed the former House Democratic leader, Gephardt's campaign said in a release announcing the endorsement. The UAW International has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential race, but has released its regional, state, and local affiliates to back candidates of their choice.
The SEIU's Stern dismissed the growing split between industrial unions backing Gephardt and public-sector unions supporting Dean.
"This isn't the first time we have ever disagreed over candidates and policies," Stern said, adding that after the Democratic primaries, "we will all come back together."
Globe staff writers Sarah Schweitzer and Brian Mooney contributed to this story.