With the sun already high in the cloudless sky over Mellon Arena, shirtsleeves and shorts were the garb of choice for thousands of marchers and spectators gathering Downtown. But John Edwards ignored the rising temperatures, smiling and sweating under a blue jacket that allowed him to show off the emblems of the United Steelworkers and the United Mine Workers, and with them, the twin endorsements that gave a Labor Day shot of adrenaline to his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.
Appearing with the former senator on a stage at the base of the arena, USW President Leo Gerard and UMW President Cecil Roberts cited the three years of visits to picket lines and plant gates that Mr. Edwards has made since his last run for president at the side of John Kerry in 2004.
Before the pre-parade crowd of roughly 1,000, union members and Edwards partisans, they praised his proposals for universal health coverage and workers rights. And, turning to election tactics, they portrayed him as the Democratic candidate most likely to prevail against a Republican opponent.
"John Edwards is the candidate for president who can campaign and win in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in West Virginia, in Kentucky, in all the places in America where we have to be able to compete and win to win this election," Mr. Edwards said, eagerly echoing their analysis.
Joining them at the parade staging ground were Elizabeth Edwards and former U.S. Rep. David Bonior, Mr. Edwards' campaign manager. While the candidate headed off to Labor Day festivities in the key battleground of Iowa, his wife and Mr. Bonior joined the union marchers heading toward the reviewing stand outside the Steelworkers' Gateway Center headquarters.
The decisions by the USW, which represents 1.2 million workers and retirees, and the UMW, with a membership of just over 100,000, vaulted Mr. Edwards, at least temporarily, to the front of the Democratic competition for the backing of labor organizations. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., announced the support last week of the International Association of Machinists and the United Transportation Union, while Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., won the support of the International Association of Firefighters.
Mr. Edwards already had the support of the Carpenters Union. Other major labor groups, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Teamsters, teachers unions and the Service Employees International Union have yet to pick a horse in the Democratic race.
"Basically, what you're seeing right now is a battle between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards for [union] endorsements," said Mr. Bonior. "I don't think, frankly, that Sen. [Barack] Obama is going to have many labor endorsements," he added, mentioning a candidate who, like the front-running Ms. Clinton, runs ahead of Mr. Edwards in most polls, with the crucial exception of those in Iowa, the first caucus state.
"Electability is the key issue," he maintained. "The mine workers and the steel workers are sophisticated enough to look at the numbers in terms of who is the strongest candidate in the general election."
Ms. Clinton has held a commanding position in most national polls of Democratic voters. Mr. Edwards has run better in several trial-heat matchups against an array of GOP contenders, although there is debate on how significant such findings are so far before the 2008 balloting.
In speeches in New Hampshire and Iowa over the weekend, Ms. Clinton depicted herself as the candidate whose experience would be most likely to produce change.
"Ultimately, to bring change, you have to know when to stand your ground, and when to find common ground," she said. "You need to know when to stick to principles and fight, and know when to make principled compromises."
Speaking to reporters after the rally, Mr. Edwards offered a long-distance rebuttal.
"I respect Sen. Clinton but I have a different view," he said. "If we're going to bring about change in this country, were going to have to take on the status quo ... If status quo would bring us universal health care, we'd have it already. We don't, and the reason is because we haven't taken these entrenched interests on."
Mr. Edwards won applause as he promised, "In our America, every single American will have health care coverage. We will require it by law. We will get rid of the gaps in the health care system.
"I don't claim that universal health care is free. My proposal will cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year. But I have a way to pay for it. Get rid of George Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year."
The one-term senator and former trial lawyer also pledged to reform mine safety oversight, and make it easier for unions to organize through "card-check" procedures.
"Here's my view," he said. "If you can join the Republican Party by signing your name on a card, any worker in America should be able to join a union by doing exactly the same thing."
After her husband headed off to Iowa, Mrs. Edwards marched with Mr. Gerard and Mr. Roberts, greeting the crowds lining Grant Street and the Boulevard of the Allies. Opening his speech earlier, Mr. Edwards referred to her well-publicized experience as a breast cancer patient, and assured the crowd that "Elizabeth is doing very well."
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published September 4, 2007 4:00 AM