Even as the labor leaders who support him are redoubling efforts to secure the Democratic presidential nod for Dick Gephardt, it is becoming increasingly clear that the former House minority leader is unlikely to secure the coveted AFL-CIO endorsement. The roadblocks to that endorsement are being erected not by the candidates who had been expected to compete with Gephardt for labor’s blessing but by the contender who not that long ago was dismissed as too wild a card for traditionally cautious unions: Howard Dean. That fact explains why Gephardt has taken the lead in attacking Dean. But so far those attacks have not prevented the former Vermont governor from chipping away enough labor support to put the AFL-CIO nod out of Gephardt’s reach.

To be sure, Gephardt retains the loyalty of many key unions. Save Ted Kennedy, it would be hard to find a member of Congress with a longer record of crusading for labor’s causes, and twenty major internationals–including the Teamsters, the Machinists, the Steelworkers and the United Food and Commercial Workers–have repaid that loyalty with endorsements and efforts to secure a critical win in the first caucus state of Iowa. But a mid-October AFL-CIO session at which Gephardt had hoped to parlay the support into an endorsement by the full labor federation was canceled after three of the country’s largest unions–the United Auto Workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union–signaled that they were not prepared to make such a move. “They just don’t think Dick can win,” says a veteran union leader. That was bad news for Gephardt, who had been counting on the AFL-CIO endorsement to keep him competitive with Dean and late-entering candidate Wesley Clark.

The news got worse for Gephardt as key unions began to break for other candidates. The Fire Fighters and the Utility Workers went for John Kerry, as did the 21,000-member Chicago Teamsters Local 705. With his ties to education and public employee unions, Kerry had been expected to be Gephardt’s toughest competitor for labor support. But Dean’s “Beat Bush” populism has made him a star at union conventions, and that’s paying off. The 335,000-member California Teachers Association, as well as the 140,000-member painters union, have both endorsed Dean, as has Washington’s powerful Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 25. Dennis Rivera, the president of Local 1199, which has 250,000 members in New York State and is a powerhouse within the Service Employees union, held a reception that raised $35,000 for Dean. On October 18, when 3,200 Local 1199 union delegates gathered for a closed-door meeting to talk politics, Dean was the only presidential candidate invited. Will Dean bag SEIU’s endorsement, the most desired of all union nods? “He hasn’t quite got it, but he’s close. The membership loves him,” says a veteran operative within the union.

Bob Muehlenkamp, a former Teamsters and Local 1199 official who is coordinating Dean’s labor push, acknowledges that Dean is working overtime to secure SEIU’s backing. Muehlenkamp, an organizer of US Labor Against the War, has played a critical role in convincing unions that Dean, whose labor record is spotty, will stand firm for removing barriers to organizing and support challenges to the corporate free-trade agenda. Dean has followed Muehlenkamp’s advice and poured energy into courting key unions, especially SEIU. With 1.6 million members, deep roots in African-American and Latino communities, and a penchant for spending heavily to support its candidates, SEIU could make Dean tough to beat in delegate-rich states like New York and California. Imagine the energetic but still overwhelmingly white and middle-class Dean campaign suddenly supercharged by thousands of minority and working-class activists. That’s not just Dean’s dream; it is the nightmare of Gephardt and the other contenders.