On the eve of the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, the first major test of the 2004 elections, Iowa AFL-CIO President Mark Smith warned against disunity in the battle to defeat George W. Bush next November.

“Most people know who the real enemy is,” he told the World in a telephone interview from his office in Des Moines. “Beat George W. Bush in November! That is the biggest applause line for any of the candidates no matter who you are talking to.”

The caucuses will draw tens of thousands of Iowa farmers, workers, homemakers, students and senior citizens to meetings in private homes, schools, churches, and libraries next Monday night to debate the issues and choose Democratic convention delegates committed to the various candidates. Smith said union members and their families will account for one-fourth to one-third of the delegates at the caucus meetings. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt, both with impressive backing from Iowa labor unions, are in a dead heat, he said.

But occasionally the campaign has been “down and dirty,” with several of Dean’s rivals attacking him in a desperate attempt to undermine his front-runner status. It reached a low point in December when a secretive Ohio-based outfit, Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values (AJHPV), briefly ran attack ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina using a picture of Osama bin Laden to smear Dean as weak on national security.

The Dean campaign denounced the ad as “despicable” and demanded that AJHPV identify the donors who paid for the ad. It ran on the same channels with an attack ad by the Republican “Club for Growth,” which also hammered Dean. AJHPV refused to say who paid for the ad. But the group’s treasurer, David Jones, has been a Gephardt fundraiser.

Several unions that had contributed to AJHPV announced they were withdrawing support for the ads. Another AJHPV official is a former press spokesman for the John Kerry campaign.

This infighting among the Democratic contenders is seen as a threat to the unity essential to oust Bush if it is not nipped in the bud. In the early debates, the Democrats maintained discipline in not attacking each other, instead directing all their fire at Bush.

The fact that labor is backing several different candidates “dilutes our message,” Smith continued. “We get wrapped up in the competition between the various candidates. But the underlying view that unites us is that Bush is dangerous as hell and must be defeated. It will take some time for the wounds to heal, but I am confident that labor will be united behind whichever candidate is chosen to challenge Bush.”

Iowa, with a jobless rate of about 4 percent, is not as hard-hit economically as other states, he said. He described the people as “anxious” over job security, farm income, pensions, and health care.

“We know that direct spending for projects like school construction and repair is three times more effective in creating jobs than tax cuts,” Smith said. “Bush calls himself a ‘compassionate conservative.’ But we call him a ‘callous conservative.’ He may not be responsible for the economic downturn. But he is responsible for refusing to respond to the downturn, for trickle-down economic policies that reward the rich.”

The war on Iraq continues to sharply divide the Democratic candidates, with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) pointing out that he played a key role in mobilizing 136 House members to vote against the Iraq war resolution and Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun also stressing their opposition to the war. Dean has made his stand against the war his main rallying cry. It has put Gephardt, and Senators John Kerry (Mass.), and John Edwards (N.C.) on the defensive, pleading with Iowa voters who pepper them with angry questions on why they voted to go to war.

Smith was an early opponent of the war in Iraq. “Bush lied. There were no weapons of mass destruction,” he said. Six months ago, those who questioned the war may have felt out of the mainstream. “Now the former treasury secretary is calling Bush a liar,” he said, referring to the explosive book, “The Price of Loyalty,” by Ron Suskind. “This policy of preventive war is B.S. It’s like someone walks in my office and I shoot him because I think he might shoot me. It’s crazy,” Smith said.

Actually, the primary election in Washington, D.C., predated the Iowa caucuses by six days. Dean was winning with 42 percent of the vote. Sharpton was close behind with 35 percent and Braun trailed with 12 percent. Rep. Kucinich observed that primary by introducing a bill in Congress to make the District of Columbia the 51st state.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.