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AFL-CIO unlikely to endorse a Democratic candidate | (KRT) With several of the nation's largest labor unions unconvinced that longtime ally Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri is the most electable Democratic presidential candidate, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney on Tuesday once again postponed a meeting to consider issuing an endorsement in the fight for the White House nomination.

Less than four months before balloting begins in the Democratic race for the nomination, labor leaders have yet to reach a consensus on which of the party's 10 candidates stands the best chance of beating President Bush. Several influential union leaders told Sweeney Tuesday they were not ready to settle on a candidate, which made it unlikely the 13 million-member labor group would endorse a preferred nominee.

"While a number of unions have endorsed or indicated that they will endorse Rep. Dick Gephardt - and are making plans to create a Labor for Gephardt organization - other unions find that their members are still considering this issue and are not yet ready to have their union decide such an important question," Sweeney said in a statement.

The Gephardt campaign, struggling to raise money and to emerge from the crowded field, had held out hopes of winning a blanket endorsement from the labor union federation. The AFL-CIO has endorsed a primary candidate only twice before, though, and campaign strategists downplayed the Tuesday decision and said they are prepared to increase their endorsements from individual unions.

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"We've always thought that it was hard to do," said Steve Elmendorf, Gephardt's campaign chief of staff. "We're running against nine other candidates who are trying to stop us."

At a Washington, D.C., meeting of union leaders Tuesday, Sweeney told union leaders they were free to endorse a candidate on their own. Gephardt has received the backing of 14 international unions representing about 3.5 million people, while Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has received an endorsement from the firefighters' union, which covers 215,000 members.

During a summer meeting in August, the labor leaders voted to give Sweeney the authority to call a mid-October meeting to discuss an endorsement. But since then, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark has joined the race and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has surged in popularity, leading several labor officials to conclude it was premature to select a candidate.

Among the undecided unions are the Service Employees International Union, the largest, with 1.6 million members; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, with 1.5 million members, and the United Auto Workers.

The AFL-CIO made a primary endorsement in 2000, supporting Al Gore, and in 1984, backing Walter Mondale. Because both candidates ultimately lost in the general election, union leaders say they want to treat their endorsement in the 2004 race with greater care.

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services