In a state where the union label still equals political muscle, Vice President Gore today came courting this Labor Day, promising that if he becomes president he will raise the minimum wage, veto anti-union legislation and extend mandatory leave time for working parents.

Several other presidential candidates spent the day paying homage to America's workers, partaking in the requisite picnics, parades and parties that have become a Labor Day staple for office seekers.

Gore, however, was one of the few contenders to take home something tangible: the endorsement of Sen. Tom Harkin, the popular Iowa Democrat with a loyal labor following. "Al Gore is right for working families, he is right for America and he is right for our state of Iowa," Harkin said at a boisterous union rally here. "I will work hard every day to put Al Gore in the White House next year."

But Bill Bradley's camp was right on Gore's heels--literally. As the vice president's 14-car motorcade wound out of the Hawkeye Downs speedway here, Minnesota Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, riding in a single rental car, pulled in to make his pitch on behalf of Gore's lone Democratic rival.

"I want people to think about what it would mean if George Bush were president," Wellstone said in an interview, referring to the Texas governor and Republican front-runner. "We've got to win this presidential race and that's why I'm supporting Bill Bradley."

Just as Labor Day has long marked the start of a new school year, the symbolic end of summer also signals a new phase in the political calendar. This time, though, the shift is coming a year earlier than usual, with the 2000 race accelerated by a front-loaded primary schedule that could produce nominees by mid-March.

Although union members have historically preferred Democrats, several GOP candidates were mining for votes today.

At appearances in South Carolina, Bush deferred to local officials on two controversial issues, school funding and the flying of the Confederate battle flag. Questioned about a proposed NAACP boycott of the state, Bush said outsiders should "butt out" of the flag flap. "I didn't particularly like it when people came in to tell me what to do in Texas," Bush added.

Publisher Steve Forbes, former labor secretary Elizabeth Dole, former vice president Dan Quayle and Gary Bauer all went north to New Hampshire to march in the Labor Day parade in Milford. Forbes also spoke at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, where he said not enough is being spent on defense, while Dole told picnickers in Salem that she wants to more tightly control the Internal Revenue Service.

Quayle, who has put just about all his resources into New Hampshire, said, "I don't believe the people of New Hampshire or America want to just coronate someone."

Bauer, who finished a three-day visit to New Hampshire today, said his campaign received its 90,000th donation during the trip--more than Forbes's 40,000-plus or Arizona Sen. John McCain's 35,000, according to the Associated Press.

But it was the Democrats who claimed today was theirs. Harkin, son of a coal miner, said that Republicans, with their "vintage chardonnay" and fancy country clubs, "work for the wealthy and the privileged few."

As he hopscotched the state that hosts the first caucuses of the nominating process, Gore said he will keep pushing for a $1-an-hour increase in the minimum wage over the next two years. He also wants to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act to grant workers time off to attend parent-teacher conferences.

And he took an indirect swipe at Bush, who recently posted a statement on his campaign Web site indicating he supports GOP legislation that would prohibit unions from spending dues on a wide range of political activities without receiving explicit permission from members each year.

"If you give me the chance to be president and they pass the paycheck deception act, I will veto it in no time flat," Gore said, deriding the so-called Paycheck Protection Act.

In a jammed pavilion at the racetrack, the vice president drew parallels between the unpredictable economic cycle and his recent hike up Mount Rainier.

"When you get to the top you can see a long way, but you can't see every dawn that will come or every storm on the horizon," he said. "From the summit of America's economic prosperity today we can't see all of the problems we may confront in the future or all of the opportunities, but we know if we work together and fight for working families and stand on principle . . . we can build the brightest future our country's ever had."

Yet while Gore's rhetoric soared, he acknowledged his record has not pleased all union members. He and President Clinton "have the same general philosophy on trade," he said, referring to a sore point with many unions that objected to administration support of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, joining Gore for a two-mile parade through a working-class neighborhood of Des Moines, said: "The vice president's been a friend of working people. We're trying to move him on trade."

Trumka, who recently praised Bradley for "perhaps one of the best speeches I've heard a politician give on workers' behalf," today said Gore is the "hands-on favorite" for his organization's endorsement.

Bradley, meanwhile, marched in South Plainfield's Labor Day parade in his adopted home state of New Jersey along with members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 94.

Both Harkin and Wellstone cited values in explaining their opposite choices for the Democratic nomination.

"I know that faith and family aren't just political buzzwords for Al, they're his compass and his North Star," Harkin said of Gore.

Wellstone said Bradley is "very authentic and has a tremendous amount of integrity." He predicted that the former NBA star, who officially launches his candidacy Wednesday, will capture votes with his views on campaign finance reform, eradicating childhood poverty and bringing universal health coverage to America.

Gore weighs in on the subject of health care today with a seven-point proposal that focuses heavily on children.

CAPTION: Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley shakes hands during the Labor Day parade in South Plainfield, N.J.