Most Americans don't realize it, but the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 begins next week. That's when the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor union and the Democrats' biggest organized constituency, gathers for its annual conference. The featured entertainment: back-to-back speeches on Feb. 18 by Vice President Gore and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, respectively, the heir apparent and the would-be spoiler in the coming battle to succeed Bill Clinton.

Already, tension between the White House and congressional Democrats, and Gore and Gephardt specifically, is infecting Clinton's second term. Certain to be a central topic at the labor conference...

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