No single endorsement, save that of next July’s party convention, will decide the winner of what remains a remarkably unsettled race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But some endorsements carry more weight than others, which explains why all the major Democratic contenders made plays for the support of Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. It also explains why Jackson’s endorsement of Howard Dean, which the Illinois congressman expects to make official in early December in South Carolina, rivals Dean’s securing of the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union endorsements as a campaign coup. Jackson gives Dean needed street cred not just among African-American voters but also among the broader pool of progressive voters who have come to respect the 38-year-old son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a principled and persistent champion of peace and economic and social justice in Congress, and a fierce battler against those who would pull the Democratic Party to the right.

While many progressives still have qualms about Dean, who governed Vermont as a centrist and who critics say has evolved leftward only as it has proven beneficial to his presidential ambitions, Jackson says long conversations and campaign trips with the governor convinced him that “Howard Dean has a genuine desire to reshape the Democratic Party. He’s been willing to take on the top-down Democratic Party leadership, to build a movement rather than just a campaign. It’s that movement that has scared the insiders. They’re fighting him right now, just like they’ve fought a lot of us who want to open the party up. I want to help him win that fight.”

The surface assumption is that the greatest assist Jackson can offer will be among African-American voters. Other candidates, particularly Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, have attracted African-American support in key states. But with his father sitting the nomination fight out–Jackson Senior echoes his son’s kind words for Dean but has not made primary endorsements since his own 1988 presidential run–the congressman could well be the best-known African-American advocate for any of the candidates. “It’s no secret that the governor comes from Vermont, one of the whitest states in the union. While his campaign has done some strong outreach to people of color, I think we’ll be able to do a lot more for him in urban areas and the South,” explains Jackson, who plans to campaign for Dean in his own state of Illinois, the delegate-rich industrial states of the Midwest and key Southern states like South Carolina. “But I also expect to be campaigning in white communities, especially in the South. Howard Dean believes, as I do, that it is possible to get African-Americans and working-class whites together around an economic-justice agenda so powerful that they look beyond the issues the Republicans have used to divide us. That’s something I’ve been talking about for years, and I think Howard Dean is the one candidate this year who gets it.” Dean has also been endorsed by Congressional Black Caucus vice chair Sheila Jackson Lee.

Jackson, who says he was drawn to Dean initially because of the candidate’s strong opposition to the Iraq war, began talking with Dean after his brother Jonathan, a Chicago businessman, endorsed Dean earlier this year. After Dean hired a well-regarded former National Rainbow Coalition aide, Andi Pringle, as a deputy campaign manager, Jackson quietly attended a speech Dean gave at Howard University in early October and then flew with him to South Carolina and watched him in action before three predominantly white audiences. “I wanted to see how he handled himself in front of different crowds,” says Jackson. “I was impressed. He struck the same themes, he was clearly intent on building a broad coalition, along the lines of the Rainbow. And he was willing to take risks to do that.”

Dean’s risk-taking caught up with him around the time Jackson decided to back him. Dean took hard hits from his Democratic opponents for saying he wanted to be the candidate of white guys who drive pickup trucks festooned with Confederate flags. While Jackson acknowledged that Dean might have chosen his words more carefully, he applauded Dean’s willingness to open the discussion about race and the Democratic Party’s future. (He wrote an article defending the candidate, “Dean’s New Southern Strategy,” at www.thenation.com.) Jackson says Dean is forcing the party to be more realistic about the work that must be done to overcome racial divisions. “We have to stop kidding ourselves as Democrats: If we’re ever going to become a majority party, we are going to have to start fighting to win back Southern working-class white voters,” argues Jackson, who devoted much of his book A More Perfect Union to explaining strategies for building multiracial coalitions of economic self-interest. “All of the economic and social justice programs liberals advocate cannot be won without those Southern votes. We have to get beyond the comfort zone of Northern liberals, and that’s what Dean has tried to do. When other candidates criticize him, they’re showing just how stuck they are in the past.”

Jackson is particularly critical of Democrats who think the South can be won simply by placing a white Southerner on the ticket. “The Bob Graham and John Edwards campaigns positioned them to be the Southern guy on the ticket,” says Jackson. “That is the approach that has plagued the party for years. It is the opposite of addressing the education, healthcare and jobs issues that could build a real coalition.” Jackson is dismissive of Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt, all of whom voted to authorize the Iraq war. He is more impressed with Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich but notes that Kucinich “has raised about $3 million so far, while Bush is going to have about $300 million. He hasn’t built a campaign that gives you confidence he could beat Bush.” The same, he says, goes for former Senator Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has made no secret of his anger over Jackson’s support for Dean. “They don’t have the infrastructure to beat Bush, which has to be the number-one priority of the African-American community, the labor community, the progressive community,” Jackson explains. “The more I’ve watched this campaign, the more I’ve become convinced that only Howard Dean has the infrastructure and the outrage to win.”

Jackson is convinced that this infrastructure, with more than 200,000 contributors and tens of thousands of volunteers nationwide, will grow into a force capable of more than just displacing Bush. “The people Dean has brought into the process, and the people we will help him bring in, can form a whole new Democratic Party. There’s no doubt that there is a struggle going on for the soul of the Democratic Party. On one side, you’ve got the people who have steered the party away from its passion, away from its potential to be a broad party of the poor, the working class and the struggling middle class in this country. They’re the people who want to stop Howard Dean. On the other side, there are those of us who believe that a Dean win would help us reclaim not just the party but the country.”