WASHINGTON — As the reshuffled slate of Democratic presidential candidates barnstorm New Hampshire in advance of next Tuesday’s primary there, fashion industry lobbyists said they are increasingly hesitant to forecast the contest’s victor or even an eventual party nominee given the surprising outcome of Monday’s Iowa caucus.

This story first appeared in the January 21, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“This thing won’t be over as early as everyone thought,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations with the National Retail Federation.

In Washington, where political punditry is often treated like a science, assumed front-runner Howard Dean’s third-place finish in Iowa, the Democratic party’s first 2004 political test, didn’t stop new theories about the primary contests ahead from being formed.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, long lagging behind Dean in the polls, was suddenly catapulted as Iowa’s victor with 38 percent of the votes, followed closely by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 32 percent. Former Vermont Gov. Dean trailed with 18 percent, as Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, once seen as challenging Dean for the top spot in Iowa, garnered 11 percent. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman didn’t campaign in Iowa, but are counting on the New Hampshire primary to show their viability.

“Howard Dean could come roaring back in New Hampshire and win there, which won’t be good for Edwards,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer with the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “But if Dean doesn’t win New Hampshire, he has a lot of explaining to do.”

Two-time presidential candidate Gephardt, who amassed sizable labor backing from among industrial unions, withdrew from the race on Tuesday. Like his union backers, Gephardt isn’t yet throwing support behind another candidate.

“A lot of people who made early predictions poured a lot of resources into Howard Dean,” said apparel union UNITE’s political director, Chris Chafe. “There is still a tremendous amount of money and resources that have waited to support an alternative to Dean. This thing may not be decided until March.”

Chafe said Kerry, who campaigned on his Senate foreign policy record and as a decorated Vietnam veteran, and Edwards, who has run a populist campaign as the son of a Milliken & Co. textile worker, garnered large support as they mostly stuck to their platforms.

“If Dean is going to be able to come back and have a definitive win in New Hampshire and move to South Carolina on Feb. 3 and win, he’s going to have to fundamentally challenge the public and media perception he’s an angry man,” Chafe said. “He has to be more statesman-like.”

UNITE, one of the few AFL-CIO-member unions that hasn’t backed a candidate, is still waiting to form an allegiance with someone on the Democratic slate to beat President Bush on Election Day.

New Hampshire and Iowa are seen as early proving grounds for candidates, but as smaller states with less racial diversity they are often seen as less reflective of the American electorate as a whole. It’s the contest in South Carolina that’s being viewed as the next real test. The same day there will be primaries in Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

To help measure the Democratic contenders’ political mettle, UNITE is planning a rally of garment and textile workers in Rock Hill, S.C., where the candidates are scheduled to attend. South Carolina is also where the textile giant Milliken & Co.-backed American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition has erected billboards saying “Lost Your Job to Free Trade and Offshoring Yet? Vote” as a means to pressure presidential and Congressional candidates to curb free-trade policies.

The decline in manufacturing employment and the role of import competition and international trade policy has been one of several issues forged by the candidates, including escalating health care costs. For retailers and other importers of textiles and apparel, the politically volatile juxtaposition of jobs versus trade is being closely watched in the campaigns.

Gephardt’s withdrawing from the contest was marked by some relief among the importers. As an opponent of NAFTA and critical of free-trade policies without strong labor and environmental standards, “Gephardt had the strongest protectionist voice,” said the NRF’s Pfister. “That doesn’t mean as the rest of the candidates roll into the South, particularly in South Carolina, you won’t see some pandering to those who have lost jobs to overseas competition.”

Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade, U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said: “During the primaries everyone talks tough on trade. Once you get past the primaries and you’re running in the general election, politicians move toward the center.”