GEORGETOWN, S.C. — When Dick Gephardt stopped in South Carolina Wednesday for a short vote-hunting dash along the Atlantic Coast, the first event was a staple of his Democratic presidential campaign: a labor union rally.
Standing on a flag-draped stage next to a shuttered steel mill in this small town, Gephardt told a crowd of about 150 that he was the only candidate they could rely on to fight international trade deals that threaten U.S. jobs.
"If you're looking for the candidate who's for fair trade, not just free trade, you're looking at the only one who was there when it counted!" the Missouri congressman said, winning applause from laid-off steelworkers as he criticized commerce agreements with Mexico and China. "I'm going to be with you! ... You can count on it. I'll show you!"
Similar scenes have unfolded time and again of late in Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and North Dakota, as Gephardt seeks to energize the union faithful who are the lifeblood of his candidacy. Next week, he plans to take his labor-rallying tour to aircraft factory workers in Washington state and to auto workers in Michigan.
To a degree unsurpassed among presidential candidates in recent decades, Gephardt is labor's man for the White House.
Union workers drive vans, knock on doors, make phone calls and pass out leaflets for him. Gephardt partied with the Transport Workers Union in Tulsa before Christmas. Hundreds of political operatives from the 21 international unions and several state affiliates that back Gephardt are swarming across Iowa to build support for him in the state's Jan. 19 caucuses -- where a win is considered essential to his candidacy.
Gephardt's dependence on these union activists is a two-edged sword. He desperately needs their help as he and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean vie for the top spot in the caucuses. Yet the more Gephardt relies on unions now, the more difficult it will be for him later in the campaign to persuade voters that his base is broader than organized labor.
Dean, for his part, has important labor support through the endorsements of public-sector and service-employee unions. He also helped deny Gephardt the coveted backing of the AFL-CIO, the union umbrella group that has taken no official stance in the race. Yet for all his clout with certain unions, Dean is not nearly as reliant as Gephardt on labor for money and foot soldiers.
"It's an important army of support," Gephardt said when asked about his ties to labor. "But I have support from a lot of other quarters. I have support from senior citizens, I have support from just people, ordinary people, that aren't in labor unions [and] just work hard every day and want somebody in the presidency for them."
Asked to name an example of a stance he has taken in opposition to labor, Gephardt cited his opposition to drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- a priority for unions in the building trade. But he acknowledged: "Generally, I fight for the interests of labor unions and working families, because that's where I come from."
Gephardt's father was a member of the Teamsters union, and his family struggled to pay bills when he was growing up -- background he invariably cites on the stump.
Here in Georgetown, where Dean appeared just over a week ago, Gephardt found some steelworkers ready to back him in South Carolina's crucial Feb. 3 primary. Two factories, making steel and electric wire components, shut down last year; one took its business overseas. Gone were 1,300 jobs, a heavy blow for a small town.
Rodney Russ, 44, a laid-off steelworker, said he was glad that Gephardt broke from the free-trade stance of President Clinton and 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.
"He's for labor -- always has been," Russ said of Gephardt. "He's always been on the right side of the issue of trade that affects our jobs every day."
More than all other major Democratic candidates, Gephardt has staked his campaign on opposition to the open-market policies that Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued in the last dozen years. He regularly attacks the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and the 2000 congressional vote to normalize trade relations with China. Lately, he has criticized the trade agreement the Bush administration just concluded with four Central American countries.
That's precisely what Gephardt's hard-core backers want to hear, even if such positions could prove a harder sell in a general election campaign.
"When we put Gephardt in the White House, we might as well be putting one of our rank and file in the White House," said Brett Voorhies, who heads a labor coalition working for Gephardt in Iowa. "He's got our members fired up now."