In a major boost to his presidential bid, Vice President Gore today received the endorsement of the largest public employee union in Iowa, the first labor organization in this key state to take a stand in the Democratic contest.

The decision by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with an expected endorsement from the Iowa United Auto Workers, will put the two unions best known for their political effectiveness in Gore's corner.

Gore made an appearance here this afternoon to give what clearly were his heartfelt thanks to Council 61 of AFSCME. "Your work has been a vital link between the people of our nation and the self-governance of America," he told these government employees. "You help redeem the promise of representative democracy. You connect the body politic to the American spirit. You connect the American dream to every citizen."

While the backing of organized labor by no means guarantees success in the February 2000 presidential nominating caucuses, there is no other constituency as important as organized labor to Democrats. Last year, Gov. Tom Vilsack became Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years--a victory that many here credit to his labor backing.

Iowa's precinct caucuses open the presidential nominating process and they require a huge organizational effort. Candidates must get supporters to thousands of neighborhood meetings around the state, where they declare their presidential choice. This is the first stage in selecting delegates to the national convention next summer. A labor union endorsement here means thousands of members will be encouraged to go to the caucuses themselves as well as staff telephone banks encouraging others to attend and provide rides for their neighbors to the meetings.

If, as many anticipate, the Iowa UAW formally backs Gore this weekend, not only will he have two strong local organizations supporting him and working for him in the caucuses, he also will have dealt a blow to rival Bill Bradley's attempt to put together an insurgent liberal coalition.

AFSCME members here said Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), a strong ally of the union and a Bradley supporter, had been making calls until the last minute in a futile attempt to persuade the Iowa AFSCME to hold off. Wellstone reportedly is making a similar bid to try to get the Iowa UAW to back off, although union sources here said these efforts are likely to meet with similar results.

Bradley had met with Iowa union officials a number of times in hopes of persuading them to at least remain neutral. Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser played down the AFSCME endorsement, saying, "It's pretty expected; they have been close to the vice president for a long time."

For Gore, the UAW endorsement would be more significant than the AFSCME decision, because the UAW in Iowa is larger, with 28,020 members to AFSCME's 10,724 members. Also, the UAW is a part of the industrial-manufacturing sector of labor organizations. These unions, especially the United States Steelworkers, have been engaged in a bitter fight with the Clinton-Gore administration over trade policy, and there has been some resistence to supporting Gore. It remains to be seen if more of these unions will join the Iowa UAW.

"Fortunately for the vice president, the [steelworkers] endorsement vote won't come for some time yet," said George Becker, national president of the Steelworkers. But he did not rule out restored relations with President Clinton and Gore: "I got a commitment from the administration to work with our union in coming up with a comprehensive solution to this problem" of massive steel imports.

Gore's strongest support in labor is from service and public-sector unions, such as AFSCME. The International Association of Firefighters and the Communications Workers of America have endorsed him, but other national unions have put off making a decision at least until the AFL-CIO meets next month and probably not until October. Union locals and state affiliates have been free to make endorsements.

In his speech today, Gore reiterated his support for a $1 increase in the minimum wage, for tough and timely enforcement of federal legislation guaranteeing the right to organize, and the administration's commitment to shore up Social Security and provide prescription drugs under Medicare.

The crucial issue for AFSCME is the right to organize, and Gore told the union leaders: "I learned from my father the right to organize is a fundamental American right." He promised if elected to press those states that now limit the ability of government workers to form unions.

"I feel a real kinship with the men and women of AFSCME," Gore told the appreciative crowd, adding that while it has been "popular for some political potshot artists to take aim at public employees, in fact you know more about the solutions than anybody else . . . The best ideas on how to improve public organizations come from the men and women right where the rubber meets the road."

CAPTION: Vice President Gore hugs a well-wisher before accepting the endorsement of an Iowa government employees union.