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Major endorsement by labor goes to Dodd

Firefighters union known for loyalty

Chris Dodd has been in the single digits in the polls. Chris Dodd has been in the single digits in the polls.

Democrat Chris Dodd yesterday picked up one of the presidential campaign's first major labor endorsements -- from the same union that helped propel John F. Kerry to the Democratic nomination in 2004.

The International Association of Fire Fighters will announce today that it will back the Connecticut senator, who has campaigned nonstop in early presidential primary states and spent tens of thousands on television advertising, but has failed to get out of the single digits in the polls and break out of the second tier of candidates.

"Chris Dodd has been under the radar so far and this news could be the very thing that could allow him to pop up," said Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H.

The endorsement of the 280,000-strong firefighters union is coveted because of its ability to organize volunteers and its history of standing by its candidate even when the political waters are rough. In 2003, it was the most visible union to stick by Kerry when his campaign was struggling.

"The firefighters are the best, most loyal friends you can ever have on your side and I know that better than anyone," Kerry said yesterday. "They were by my side in good days and bad days. There's no doubt in my mind that when they endorsed my campaign early -- when I was lagging in the polls, during some real bumps in the road -- they helped keep my campaign going and helped spread our message."

Harold Schaitberger, the union's president, said he expects the union's executive board to unanimously endorse Dodd at a meeting in Washington. From there, Dodd and union officials will hold events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

As many as 11 candidates -- both Republican and Democrat -- have courted the union's endorsement since March.

"You are looking at a field of strong candidates we all have relationships with," Schaitberger said. "But we go to the core principles of who is the candidate that has truly earned our union support. Chris Dodd earned it."

Schaitberger said that not only has Dodd supported firefighters in Congress, but he also has been pushing bills for the union since 1976, when he was in the Connecticut House of Representatives.

The impact and political savvy of the union has already been at work for Dodd.

Firefighters from Dodd's home state made calls to New Hampshire state Representative Michael O'Brien, a Nashua Democrat and 27-year veteran of the Nashua Fire Department.

"I didn't know much about him, but this is a close-knit community of firefighters, so I took what they said seriously enough to meet him myself," said O'Brien. A few weeks later after those phone calls, he endorsed Dodd.

The endorsement, along with one yesterday by the United Transportation Union for Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, are the first by major unions in the 2008 presidential campaign.

The transportation union represents 125,000 active and retired railroad, bus, and public transit workers. "The UTU has a long history of picking winners early. Hillary will be a president that America's working families can count on. Time and again, as a United States senator, she has stood with us," union President Paul Thompson said in a statement released by Clinton's campaign.

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina are also expected to win endorsements as the unions announce their choices leading up to Labor Day. Organized labor is a crucial source of money and volunteers for Democrats, both to win the nomination and in the general election campaign.

Edwards's campaign manager, David Bonior, said the firefighters union endorsement was "a plus for Dodd," but predicted that Edwards would have more union endorsements by the fall.

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