- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

Al Gore is getting the support of less than half of the nation's labor union households, an anemic showing for his

trouble-plagued presidential campaign.

The vice president is polling well below the 60-percent levels that President Clinton won in his 1992 and 1996 presidential races among union members. Top union strategists say that if Mr. Gore is running this weakly in a core element of his party's base, he is in much deeper trouble than the overall voter polls suggest thus far.

The disappointing union numbers came from a nationwide survey by independent pollster John Zogby, conducted just after Memorial Day weekend. He found Mr. Gore leading Texas Gov. George W. Bush by only 7 percent among union-household voters, 46.8 percent vs. 39.8 percent.

Compounding Mr. Gore's surprising weakness among rank-and-file labor voters is the threat by two major unions, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, to back Ralph Nader or endorse no one, in retaliation for Mr. Gore's support for the China trade bill.

If the Teamsters and UAW sit out this year's presidential election, AFL-CIO officials tell me that it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for Mr. Gore to carry pivotal industrial states that contain heavy concentrations of union voters, especially Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bush is ahead in these states, and their combined electoral strength (73 votes) would be enough to hand him the presidency if he holds his strength elsewhere in the Western plains and mountain states and the South.

Michigan, a critical linchpin in Mr. Bush's electoral strategy, is an especially vulnerable state for Mr. Gore if the UAW and the Teamsters desert him, Gore allies told me last week.

"The Teamsters and the UAW comprise 60 percent of the labor union vote in Michigan. Without their support, it will be pretty near impossible for Gore to carry this state," Michigan's AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney said.

Longtime Democratic campaign strategists do not believe that the two unions will withhold their support from Mr. Gore or embrace Mr. Nader, the archliberal, anti-business gadfly who has been a staunch opponent of permanent trade relations with China.

But UAW President Stephen Yokich does not make idle threats. His bitter statement in response to Mr. Gore's defense of the China trade bill made it clear that the union was in no mood to endorse Mr. Gore and work for him. Instead, the UAW "may remain neutral" in the presidential race, he said.

Teamsters President James Hoffa is sending out the same message, and those close to him say that he "means it" when he says the Teamsters "may not endorse anyone."

The possibility of either one of these unions leaving the reservation "is a major problem, especially in states that are going to be critical to Al Gore, and in many of those states the Teamsters are the dominant union," AFL-CIO political director Steven Rosenthal told me.

"They've made a tough job tougher," Mr. Rosenthal said of the two big unions that have refused to join the AFL-CIO in endorsing Mr. Gore.

At the same time, Mr. Bush is demonstrating his own surprising strength among rank-and-file union members.

Gore campaign strategists and union officials blame most of the vice president's weakness with union members on the China issue. But the same polls show Mr. Bush winning 40 percent of the labor vote at this point, a remarkable showing for a conservative who is a self-professed "free trader" and who supports the China trade agreement even more enthusiastically than Mr. Gore.

It follows that many of Mr. Bush's union supporters are drawn to something in his candidacy despite his support of trade with China. Among many other issues, Mr. Bush's repeated pledge to restore dignity, ethics and morality to the office of the presidency seems to have an especially powerful appeal among these voters.

"These voters told us that the breakdown of morality is their second most important national issue," Mr. Zogby said. With last week's release of a new batch of Justice Department memorandums providing new evidence of Mr. Gore's role in the White House's sleazy campaign-finance scandal, honesty and ethics in public office loom as an increasingly powerful issue whose appeal cuts across party lines.

Does Mr. Bush's strength with labor signal the return of the legendary Reagan Democrats to the GOP?

"Rank-and-file labor union members tend to better reflect America at large than labor leaders do," Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan told me. "By and large, these are independent, conservative-leaning Reagan Democrats. They are part of the old Reagan Democrat coalition."

In many respects, Mr. Bush's campaign themes reflect those of the Reagan campaigns: cutting tax burdens, expanding the investor class so that ordinary people can create wealth through retirement-investment accounts, rebuilding a weakened military, rebuilding national pride and restoring respect for the presidency.

There are powerful new economic and social forces coursing through our body politic, but they do not seem to be moving in Al Gore's direction. On the contrary, with major parts of his party's base deserting him, his uphill climb has become a lot steeper.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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