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When Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign wanted to pack a postdebate rally at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo with enthusiastic supporters last week, strategists turned to labor unions for the bodies.

When Clinton marched in a recent parade in Manhattan, she relied on labor unions to line the route with cheering supporters.

When she wants a guaranteed friendly crowd for a stump speech in the waning weeks of the campaign, it is before a union audience.

And when hecklers are needed to hound her opponent, unions provide the voices.

Come Election Day, Nov. 7, all the hand-wringing and pre-vote analysis over the upstate or suburban influence or the role of gender politics in the race will finally end. Then it will be labor unions, both Republicans and Democrats agree, that make the difference if the first lady pulls off a victory against her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick A. Lazio.

It is no wonder, then, that Lazio wants from Clinton a ban on so-called soft money, which also demands that unions halt some of their activities on Clinton's behalf.

But with 2.5 million union members in New York, more than any other state, it would seem unlikely, Democrats say, that Clinton would ever chase away her most ardent and, to many, most politically sophisticated group of supporters.

"Unions are a big component of her campaign," said one Clinton campaign adviser.

In fact, in a generation, there has not been a statewide campaign in New York as reliant as the first lady's on union support. And unlike recent statewide campaigns -- including the 1998 U.S. Senate race that elected Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Gov. George E. Pataki's campaign, two contests when labor split between Democrats and Republicans -- New York's labor movement is united to help Clinton win.

With 35 to 40 percent of the vote expected to come from union households -- six in 10 registered union voters are Democrats -- the unions say their clout will be real.

"She's been so good for us . . . and if we don't support people like that strongly, then who'll be there to work on our behalf?" said Thomas Hobart, president of the 440,000-member New York State United Teachers union.

When all is said and done, Hobart said, to help Clinton, his union alone will spend at least $1 for every one of its members.

Critics say Clinton's overwhelming union backing also signals something else about the first lady if she is elected: that she will bend over backward to help labor at the expense of employers and reformers.

"Clearly, she'll be more responsive to big labor than she will be to small business," said Mark Alesse, state director of the National Federal of Independent Business, which represents 20,000 small business owners in New York.

Clinton's ties with the teachers union, for instance, will prevent reforms to help get more qualified graduates into the work force, as well as school vouchers, Alesse said.

And her closeness with unions could hit employers with higher costs, such as expanded worker leave provisions sought by labor unions, he said.

"Obviously, she will respond to those who support her," said Alesse, whose group has endorsed Lazio.

Politically, though, note longtime political insiders, the influence of the unions cannot be underestimated in a state such as New York. Unlike an environmental or business group, an endorsement by labor in New York translates into an army of seasoned political veterans with the know-how to help with everything from blanketing the right neighborhoods with campaign literature to driving voters to the polls on Election Day.

Labor's help for Clinton starts with the top of the ticket, with unions continuing to spend money to help Vice President Gore keep his lead in New York. In fact, his March primary against former Sen. Bill Bradley gave the unions a trial run for the real thing in November.

For Clinton, the union work, coordinated across New York from a state AFL-CIO office located up the block from the state Capitol, has been under way all year.

In all, about 100 union officials have been reassigned from their labor jobs to spend a good chunk of their days working on Clinton's behalf in at least 10 union offices.

This week, Clinton chose one of labor's most savvy political operatives, Edward Draves of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, to head her upstate operation.

Though union officials insist they do not work directly for the Clinton campaign, insiders say there is daily coordination between the camps. With labor, Clinton has an operation with an intrinsic ability to organize.

Two weeks ago, 1 million pro-Clinton pamphlets were distributed to union workers across the state -- a new "issues"-type approach the unions have been running. Internal surveys show it is far more influential with rank-and-file members than the old days of sending a postcard with the names of union-endorsed candidates.

In the next week or so, phone bank operations to rival those of any telemarketing company will begin in earnest. Owned mostly by big public employee unions, representing teachers, health care workers and state and local government employees, many of the phone operations are run by computer, capable of tracking down undecided union voters in a particular ZIP code and, if requested, mailing out literature on topics from schools to Social Security.

As Election Day nears, the unions will turn to what they are best-known for in New York: getting voters out to vote. In the final week, an unprecedented 1,000 phones are expected to be used by the unions to help Clinton. The teachers union, which made 250,000 phone calls on Schumer's behalf in 1998, expects to reach all 440,000 members by Election Day.

In Buffalo, drivers are being rounded up to help get disabled or retired union members to the polls, while activists are rushing to get union members registered to vote.

"To get our voice heard, we have to get our people out to vote," said Frank Palambaro, a United Steelworkers official and the political coordinator for the Buffalo Labor Council, a coalition of nearly 70 groups representing some 100,000 union members in Erie County.

Union leaders claim Clinton will be better at helping their members' needs, despite union complaints over free trade and wage issues during the past eight years of her husband's administration.

Lazio, however, has only a 34 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO. Republican consultant Jack Cookfair, who admits the union presence in the Clinton campaign is "very crucial," said that it "remains to be seen how enthusiastic the rank and file are about someone who has absolutely nothing in common with them."

The overwhelming labor backing for Clinton does not come without criticism by those who believe the union work on her behalf will be repaid later.

"If she wins, the green light will be on. She will clearly be an agent for the massive unions in Washington," said Michael Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party.

Clearly, Lazio is worried about labor's role in his opponent's campaign. This week, in his tussle with Clinton over soft money, Lazio said he will not ask outside anti-Clinton groups to stay out of his campaign unless pro-Clinton unions also stay on the sidelines. Legally, unions can spend unlimited amounts of money, so long as it is on a "member to member" basis.

That means they can print and distribute millions of fliers, so long as union members are recipients. But there are huge loopholes. For instance, several unions, claiming they are doing member outreach, are planning television ads that will benefit Clinton; of course, far more voters than just union members will see the ads.

"If I were them (the Clinton camp) . . . I wouldn't give up the unions, either," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, one of Lazio's support groups.

Union leaders say they have no plans to abandon their political activities in the Senate race -- no matter what kind of deal Lazio and Clinton may strike on soft money.

"We have a mandate to communicate with our members," said Suzy Ballantyne, the AFL-CIO political director, whether the issues are workplace safety or politics.

All of this comes as the national labor movement has been gaining increasing political influence in the past half decade. In New York, the state AFL-CIO has a new leadership team, led by its president, Denis Hughes, that is considered more politically adept.

"Organized labor has re-emerged as a very strong political force," said Tom Juravich, director of the labor relations program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"Nationwide with Gore, and here in New York with Clinton, we're going to see as unified a labor force as we've seen in some time," he said.

And labor officials are not shy to take credit for what they predict will be a Clinton victory.

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