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Members of the Alliance for Economic Justice, a group of 17 labor unions that had backed Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) presidential candidacy, indicated Wednesday that the coalition membership would seek to endorse one of the remaining Democratic candidates as a group — if at all.

The decision was reached in a series of conference calls that followed Gephardt’s withdrawal on Tuesday. The move virtually ensures that none of the AEJ’s member organizations will throw its backing to any candidate before the critical New Hampshire primary on Tuesday — though top officials at the alliance said individual unions reserved the right to break off.

“I would be very surprised if anybody endorsed anybody before next week — I can tell you for sure that we’re not,” said Frank Voyack, the Iron Workers union’s political director and a top organizer for the AEJ. “We’re tired. We’re exhausted. No one is eager to rush into any other endorsements right now.”

None of the major campaigns could be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. But labor officials involved in the AEJ said aides to the various Democratic candidates were already aggressively reaching out to the group’s constituent members, seeking support.

Led by established powers such as the Teamsters, the Steel Workers and the Laborers International, the AEJ was able to muster more than 600 troops for the Iowa caucuses.

Though Monday’s outcome cast doubt on labor’s organizing might — Gephardt placed fourth, while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, with support from two of the other major unions, came in a distant third — labor officials have appeared to write off the result as an outcome determined by other campaign dynamics, such as tone and message.

Some labor officials involved in the Gephardt effort sounded ebullient about the results, in spite of the numbers.

“Everyone checked their egos at the door. No job was too big or too small,” said Chuck Harple of the Teamsters. He suggested that he and others were shocked by the level of cooperation that existed between unions that in other circumstances would be fighting one another.

“It was just incredible,” Harple said.

A top union strategist not affiliated with the AEJ said the exit of Gephardt from the Democratic presidential race left many unions with no idea whom they would now support.

Of the leading candidates, Dean had a sometimes testy relationship with state employee unions and is reviled by elements of Gephardt’s labor coalition; Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has a long Congressional record that includes votes that have angered individual unions; and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is a relative newcomer with a short political career and no particular history of taking pro-labor stands on tough issues.

Former Gen. Wesley Clark, the strategist said, is a “complete blank slate.”

“A lot of people are asking what is the next step,” said this union insider. “It isn’t like you’ve got a natural replacement [for Gephardt], somebody who everybody will throw their support to next. No one is quite sure what to do.”

AFL-CIO political directors are set to meet today in Washington to discuss their outlook on the 2004 elections. While the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — two of the biggest organizations — have already endorsed Dean, the meeting is not expected to bring any further commitments.

“We’re nowhere near that,” one senior labor official said.

Voyack noted that while the AEJ had a powerful organizing role in Gephardt’s campaign, its participation had more to do with the candidate than the mission of the group.

“Our endorsement of Gephardt was not a random act,” Voyack said, suggesting that, as far as an official endorsement from the AEJ, there may be none forthcoming.

The AEJ is organized as a 501(c)(5) group, rather than as an explicitly political organization, though its members acknowledge that their shared support for Gephardt’s campaign was the catalyst behind the group’s formation.

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