The Delicate Task of Wooing Interest Groups ; Gore Chalks Up Key Endorsements, Which Grow in Importance as Party

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In the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, no endorsement by a special-interest group will be more important than the nod Vice President Al Gore got this week from organized labor.

The backing of the 13.1 million-member AFL-CIO, which came earlier in the campaign season than usual, represents money, on-the- ground organization, and big positive headlines - all of which the struggling Gore campaign has craved.

And even though organized labor isn't the force it once was in American life, its role in electoral politics - along with that of all the other liberal interest groups - is more important to the Democrats than ever. Since the 1960s, the Democratic Party has shrunk as a percentage of the total electorate, from about 45 percent down to about one-third. In effect, it's been reduced to its "base," those core constituencies that turn out in primaries and do the footwork in general elections.

The challenge for politicians is not to appear captive of these groups. "Candidates have to be very careful to say, "You're with me more than I'm with you," says political analyst Bill Schneider, observing the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.

Vice President Gore and his only challenger for the Democratic nomination, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, are battling hard to win the support of the numerous constituencies that make up the Democratic coalition, including labor, blacks, Hispanics, feminists, environmentalists, and gay groups.

So far, more than a year before the general election, few groups have issued endorsements. Senator Bradley won headlines last month when the 20,000-member environmental group Friends of the Earth backed him over Gore. But that small plum has more symbolic value than anything else - and arguably even works to Gore's favor, since it takes a bit of the luster off his image as an environmentally left-wing tree-hugger.

In the end, Bradley faces an uphill battle to wrest endorsements from Gore, who remains the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, despite Bradley's strong showing in polls in early- primary states.

Bradley has worked hard to woo the black vote, for example, making a rare appearance in Harlem and highlighting his support among some black basketball stars, harking back to his own days as a pro standout. …