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Edwards gets union support, stumps the South

Edwards waves goodbye Friday to a crowd in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Edwards waves goodbye Friday to a crowd in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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(CNN) -- Sen. John Edwards Saturday picked up his first union endorsement in Wisconsin, a state that could become a critical battleground in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Edwards, whose campaign efforts have been focused mainly on Southern states, said he believes Wisconsin -- which will hold its primary February 17 -- remains "wide open."

A new poll shows national front-runner Sen. John Kerry leading in the state and Edwards in a close race with retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard for second place.

Dean, the national front-runner before voting began, has already said he would drop out of the race if he doesn't win Wisconsin.

Not so for Edwards. When asked in Memphis, Tennessee, whether he would describe Wisconsin as a "must-win" state, he said, "No, no, I would not".

Saturday, in his first trip of the year to Wisconsin -- and third of his campaign -- Edwards addressed a rally filled with union workers and lambasted President Bush with some of his harshest criticism to date.

The audience of approximately 500 at the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus included members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, which became the first international union to throw its weight behind his presidential candidacy.

The union, with a 500,000-strong membership -- about half of whom are retired -- backed Edwards' 1998 Senate run.

The North Carolina senator devoted part of his speech to his upbringing as the son of a mill worker.

Edwards, who is bypassing this weekend's races in Michigan, Washington state and Maine -- where according to polls Kerry appears as the leading contender -- is campaigning heavily in Tennessee and Virginia, both set to hold primaries next week.

Edwards has described the races in Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin as "steps toward the nomination," adding that he expects a strong showing but not necessarily a victory.

"This is very much for me a long-term process. It's a war of attrition, it's about narrowing the field down to two, which I think we are close to now, and winning delegates as we go forward, which is what I've been doing," the North Carolina senator said. "I'm in it until I'm the nominee."

He told reporters Saturday, "I'd like to be in the top two" in Tennessee and Virginia.

"We have, luckily for us, the money and resources to maintain a long-term effort for this nomination," he said.

In his speech at Milwaukee, lashed out at the Bush administration policies.

He also slammed NAFTA, saying Wisconsin has lost 75,000 manufacturing jobs since the passage of the agreement a decade ago.

"Twenty years ago, we started a phrase here in America: 'Buy American.' Well, I got a new phrase, how 'bout 'Hire American!'"

"This president's at war with working people -- every single day, making their lives harder, making it more and more difficult every day for working people to have a voice, for working people to be able to organize," he said.

"When I'm president of the United States, we're going to strengthen the rights of working people," he added. "We're going to ban the hiring of permanent replacements for strikers and make it the law of the land."

A surprising second-place finish in the January 19 Iowa caucuses brought Edwards' campaign more attention and more money, which got a renewed boost with his victory Tuesday in South Carolina and strong showing in Oklahoma where he lost to retired general Wesley Clark by less than 1 percentage point.

In a bid to broaden his appeal beyond his native state, Edwards has said the Democratic nominee must be able to win in the South in order to unseat President Bush in November.

"We've never elected a Democrat president of the United States without winning at least five Southern states," Edwards said. "If Democrats across the country want to take a risk on the first time in American history, that's a possibility -- they can do that. What I give them is a candidate who can win everywhere in America."

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