Giant union throws its weight behind Dean

The campaign of Howard Dean, front runner in the Democratic race to oppose President George Bush next year, yesterday enjoyed a huge fillip yesterday when one of the largest US unions formally threw its weight behind the former Vermont governor.

The endorsement by the 1.6 millioin-strong Service Employees International Union came at a timely moment, deflecting attention from the storm unleashed by Mr Dean's remark that he wanted to be "the candidate of guys with confederate flags in their pick up trucks", and his stubborn refusal to issue a retraction.

The formal backing by the SEIU offers crucial organisational and get-out-the-vote support in key primary states, including New Hampshire, New York and California.

Before the union's decision, Mr Dean said the endorsement would be "a really big boost", adding: "If we get it, it does mean we have a great chance to take back the White House." The move will be a blow to Dick Gephardt, the former Democratic House leader seen, with retired General Wesley Clark, as Mr Dean's most dangerous rival. Mr Gephardt, a long-time champion of labour issues, is banking on his close ties with unions to underpin his candidacy. But the SEIU clearly believes sentiment should not interfere with the judgement of who can unseat Mr Bush.

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