By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - In an early indication of how competitive the presidential election may be in Ohio, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa urged the union's Ohio members Tuesday to help elect Democrat Dick Gephardt.
Hoffa's plea came a year after the Teamsters were called on to help re-elect Ohio's Republican governor, Bob Taft, a key figure in President Bush's campaign in the state.
A few minutes after Hoffa (pictured, above) spoke to about 200 union members at the annual meeting of the Ohio Conference of Teamsters, Taft asked for their continued support as Ohio tries to make an economic recovery.
Between their appearances, Hoffa and Taft met briefly in a separate room, shook hands and exchanged compliments.
The Teamsters endorsed Gephardt, a congressman from Missouri, about two weeks ago.
"It's time for us to stand with him," Hoffa told the Ohio Teamsters. "I'm going to come back here and we're going to talk about rallies, because this is one state he's got to carry."
Other Democrats running for the nomination are former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
"I have looked at him and his record, and he is one guy who believes in what we believe. His father was a Teamster. I'm a second generation Teamster, and proud of it," Hoffa told the conference.
Taft was chairman of Bush's Ohio campaign in 2000, when the state ended up delivering more electoral votes to Bush than any state other than Texas and Florida. Bush will be in Ohio on Labor Day.
Although Taft did not use the Teamsters event to campaign for Bush, he said he appreciated union members' support during his own re-election a year ago.
"I'm very proud of the good relationship that we have developed over the past 4½ years, and I appreciate especially your endorsement of our re-election campaign last year. I'll never forget that huge Labor Day parade over in Toledo and marching there with that huge Teamster truck. I mean, that was awesome," Taft said.
Meeting briefly with reporters after his remarks to the Teamsters, Taft acknowledged that Bush should not disregard Ohio.
"I don't believe the president can be re-elected without carrying the state of Ohio. That's been true in all recent elections, and I think it's probably more true today than it ever has been," he said.
Conference delegate Michael Scarberry, a member of Teamsters Local 92 in Canton, said he thinks members of the union will back Hoffa's call to support Gephardt "mostly based on economic reasons and the erosion of the rights of organized labor."