John Edwards is preparing to mount an issue-based challenge to the John Kerry juggernaut. And the issue will be trade policy.

Edwards, the North Carolina senator who many Democrats now see as the last challenger with a chance to derail Kerry’s front-running campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, is already reaping the benefits of his “fair trade, not free trade” stance. On Saturday, in Milwaukee, he will receive a key labor endorsement from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

“UNITE members, like all working families, are struggling. George Bush has traded away 2.6 million manufacturing jobs, and put our economic stability, workplace standards and civil liberties at risk,” says UNITE President Bruce Raynor, who will join Edwards and a large contingent of the union’s more than 3,000 Wisconsin members for the announcement. “Our members are looking for bold new leadership to see us through these challenging times,” says Raynor. “Senator John Edwards provides that leadership.”

With an epic history that stretches back to the fights against sweatshops at the dawn of the past century, and with 500,000 active and retired members nationwide, UNITE has long been in the forefront of opposition to trade policies that undermine protections for workers, the environment and human rights. The endorsement from UNITE is the first Edwards has received from an international union, and he will use it to highlight the distinctions between his record of challenging free-trade pacts and Kerry’s record of support for those agreements.

Don’t expect Edwards to get particularly personal with Kerry; the North Carolinian is the “Mr. Congeniality” of this race. But Edwards will be more aggressive about highlighting positions on trade issues that differ from those taken by Kerry.

Edwards has pushed trade issues hard on the campaign trail in recent days, declaring in Tennessee on Thursday that, “It is wrong that our trade policies have caused one million good paying jobs to be shipped overseas because our companies can find cheaper labor and lower standards in another country…We cannot keep supporting trade deals if they are taking our jobs and our democratic way of life with them.”

It’s no coincidence that the announcement of the UNITE endorsement will come in Wisconsin, where the union has more than 3,000 members and thousands of retirees, and where the February 17 primary contest is shaping up as what could be the last chance to slow Kerry’s march to the nomination. With wins in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and five caucuses and primaries on February 3, Kerry has emerged as the clear frontrunner.

Already, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has signaled that Wisconsin will be a make-or-break test for his battered candidacy. Edwards is not so blunt about the important of the Wisconsin primary, but his aides admit that he needs to win a northern state soon to remain viable.

Edwards scored a big win February 3 in South Carolina, and he posed solid, second-place finishes in Oklahoma and Missouri – which added significantly to his delegate totals in the race for the Democratic nomination. And he could score wins Tuesday in the Tennessee and Virginia primaries, where he is competing with Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, but the North Carolinian needs a breakthrough in the north. That’s where Wisconsin, which holds the highest profile primary between now and the March 2 “Super Tuesday” primaries in delegate-rich states such as Ohio, New York and California, comes in.

“Edwards is going to have to win somewhere in the north, and there are no other targets for him except Wisconsin,” says former US Rep. Jim Jontz, who has been working to get all the candidates to address trade issues as part of the “Regime Change 2004” initiative of the group Americans for Democratic Action. “So Edwards is going to need Wisconsin, and the issue that may get Wisconsin to listen to him is trade.”

Jontz is hardly alone in suggesting that trade issues rank high on the list of concerns for Wisconsinites.

“In the past two and one-half years, Wisconsin alone has lost over 84,000 manufacturing jobs in part because of unfair trade policies,” says US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who has been a leading Senate foe of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), permanent Most Favored Nation trading status for China, and the granting to President Bush of “Fast Track” authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement.

Feingold is not making an endorsement in the Wisconsin primary. But he has made trade a major issue in the state, which has been hard hit in recent years by trade policies that have encouraged US firms to shutter factories in the upper Midwest and shift production out of the country. Feingold and other members of the Wisconsin Congressional delegation have, as well, been leaders in raising concerns about trade policies that undermine the interests of Wisconsin’s family farmers – who remain a significant electoral force in what has historically been known as America’s Dairyland.

Edwards has not been so consistent a foe of free trade policies as Feingold, or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who is also seeking the Democratic nod. But the North Carolinian has cast votes in the Senate against a number of trade agreements, and he has made opposition to the FTAA and calls for a reworking of NAFTA an important part of his message in the presidential campaign.

In contrast, Kerry voted for NAFTA, legislation that led to the creation of the World Trade Organization, Most Favored Nation trading status for China and Fast Track authority for the Bush administration to negotiate not just the FTAA but other new trade agreements. When the AFL-CIO quizzed candidates on trade issues in July, Kerry refused to indicate whether he would oppose a Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that did not include significant protections for workers and the environment in the US and abroad.

In September, in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Kerry accused critics of free trade pacts, including former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, and Dean, of “pandering” to organizing labor. Gephardt, who won the support of many industrial unions but ran poorly in the Iowa caucuses, has withdrawn from the race and is now backing Kerry.

But Gephardt’s long-time ally in fights against the free-trade agenda of Presidents Clinton and Bush, former House Whip David Bonior, endorsed Edwards on Thursday. “One of the reasons I am supporting John is that he campaigned against NAFTA and knows thath we have to fight for fair trade, not just free trade,” said Bonior, who remains a popular figure with labor audiences not just in his native Michigan and in neighboring Wisconsin.

Along with Bonior’s backing, Edwards was endorsed this week by District 2 of the United Steelworkers of America, which represents steelworkers in Michigan and Wisconsin. “As the son of a textile worker, he has seen the devastation that unfair trade has brought upon entire industries,” said Harry Lester, Director of the District 2 United Steelworkers of America. “It is time working people had an Administration that recognizes the success of business and the success of working people go hand in hand. John Edwards understands that and would bring fairness back to our government.”