When the AFL-CIO asked each of the Democratic presidential candidates to participate in a separate labor town hall meeting, John Edwards quickly chose Seattle as his preferred venue. He was determined not to repeat his mistake of 2004, when he did almost no campaigning in the Northwest. The price he paid was high: finishing fourth in the crucial Washington caucus behind minor candidate Dennis Kucinich.

So here was Edwards on May 1, very early in the 2008 cycle, appearing before a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 800 unionists in a Seattle machinists hall. He desperately wanted labor’s endorsement and its vote. “In the midterms, we delivered twenty-six legislative seats,” says Dave Freiboth, head of Seattle’s King County Labor Council, “more than anywhere else in the country. Candidates are paying attention.”

And it’s a two-way street. This year, more than ever, organized labor is striving to push its agenda hard and early in the presidential race. In March the nation’s largest healthcare union and richest PAC, the Service Employees International Union, summoned the contenders to Las Vegas for a debate on healthcare (and the union has given them an August 1 deadline to submit specific plans). The AFL-CIO is sponsoring its own series of one-on-one town halls with the candidates, culminating in August, when the Democratic rivals will appear together before a federation gathering in Chicago. “Working families will have the chance to ask candidates what they will do to make America work for working families,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney.

Sometime after Labor Day the unions in both major federations, the AFL-CIO and the SEIU-dominated Change to Win Coalition, are expected to make their official endorsement, opening the floodgates for tens of millions in contributions and thousands of campaigning union foot soldiers.

Edwards, currently running third in most polls, has spent the past two years quietly but meticulously laying the groundwork for becoming labor’s candidate, hoping to ride that rail straight to the nomination. He’s been walking picket lines, supporting organizing drives and speaking out on union issues. He’s taken his 2004 stump speech decrying the “two Americas” and tried to give it practical expression in support of the poorer side of the equation.

No surprise, then, that Edwards repeatedly and emphatically reminded the Seattle town hall of just how deep that commitment has become, insisting that unlike traditional Democrats, who merely seek union support, he has adopted a view that American prosperity can expand only if unionization expands. “It doesn’t matter who I’m speaking to,” Edwards told the crowd. “I talk about this issue wherever I go, whoever the audience is. I’ve talked about these organizing issues in front of Chambers of Commerce…and I think we desperately need comprehensive labor law reform.” That line provoked the fourth standing ovation of his pitch.

The fifth ovation came when the former North Carolina senator said, “The difference between being unionized and not is the difference between living in poverty and not…. I think if somebody can join the Republican Party by signing their name to a card, any worker in America ought to be able to join a union by doing the same thing.”

Three more ovations erupted during Edwards’s forty-five-minute appearance, as the candidate proposed measures that would require employers to provide or pay for healthcare and ban permanent strike replacements, and called for approving only those trade pacts with real labor protection. Edwards punctuated his appeal on a personal note, pointing out that his father and brother have healthcare today only because of a union plan.

If the vote had been taken that moment, he would have swept the floor. “The thing about Edwards that resonates so much with me is just how pro-union he is, coming from such a red state,” says Freiboth, who chaired the event. “When he comes out and delivers on our issues from such a conservative part of the country, it’s something very, very powerful.”

Edwards has also made significant inroads among the national labor leadership. His detailed and specific plan for universal healthcare has been warmly received by the SEIU; in the coming election that union pledges to spend more than the $65 million it poured into the 2004 cycle. And Edwards has been lavishly praised for his behind-the-scenes work in supporting a number of recent organizing efforts. “I’m 61, and in my lifetime I don’t recall any candidate for President who articulated a belief not just that unions are good but that they are necessary for what ails society,” said John Wilhelm, a leader of the textile and hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE, recently.

Support from UNITE HERE is considered of utmost importance in next year’s early Nevada primary–a contest that could provide strategic momentum going into the mega-primary February 5, when it’s possible the nomination will be settled. The union exercises enormous clout, with more than 60,000 members of its Local 226 working in the Las Vegas area. More than a year ago Edwards was already traveling cross-country giving his personal and often late-night support to hotel workers embroiled in a contentious contract fight.

Union support and funding in the presidential arena, however, has frequently failed to deliver the general election or even the party nomination. In the 2004 race both the SEIU and AFSCME (the public employees’ union) threw their early support to the ill-fated insurgent campaign of Howard Dean. AFSCME later withdrew its endorsement. This year AFSCME could again be a wild card in the endorsement process. In 2005 the SEIU left the AFL-CIO and along with UNITE HERE, the Teamsters and a handful of other unions formed the rival Change to Win Coalition. Edwards, at least at this date, figures to be the odds-on favorite to snatch CTWC’s endorsement. Inside the AFL-CIO, however, AFSCME has been left as the single most powerful union. Its president, Gerald McEntee, has been a loyal ally of the Clintons, and he might balk at challenging Hillary’s primary run.

In the meantime, John Edwards continues his quest to capture labor’s support. An hour after the Seattle meeting ended, he was standing before another enthusiastic audience of hundreds, this time at a community college thirty miles up the road. True to his vow, he was telling that crowd the same thing he had told the labor audience: that without a larger union movement we’ll never have a larger middle class.