By MARC LEVY
HARRISBURG - In 2002, the clock hadn't even struck 12:01 a.m. before Pennsylvania's labor unions had given well beyond $1 million to Bob Casey, the rising star of the state Democratic Party who nevertheless went on to lose the gubernatorial primary to Ed Rendell six months later in a race that wasn't even close.
With that in mind, many in the labor movement are debating the pros and cons of getting involved in a wide open Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign and potentially wasting their investment on a candidate who loses the May 20 primary election. The alternative is waiting to support the winner against the Republican incumbent, Gov. Tom Corbett.
Some unions are already giving money and endorsements in a big field of candidates that lacks anyone who comes close to matching the name recognition that Rendell and Casey had among voters in 2002.
For those unions, sitting out is a bigger risk than spending precious resources on a primary loser.
"Then they have to accept the candidate who is chosen by those people who have decided to participate, and that's not usually the way they do things," said John Cordisco, the Democratic Party chairman of Bucks County. "If they're going to ride a horse in that race, they're going to ride it early, and it's going to be one who they know will be receptive to their issues."
Traditionally, labor unions have provided an important base of financial and volunteer support for Pennsylvania's Democrats, and candidates in this year's race hear them: Calls to raise the minimum wage, for instance, are common.
Corbett is not necessarily a stranger to labor support. In his first campaign as governor, he was endorsed by public safety unions - police officers, state troopers and corrections officers - and in the past couple of years, he's accepted tens of thousands of dollars from electrical workers.
Unions have regularly fought Corbett's policies as governor. But he has not joined Republican governors in some other states in attacking the bargaining rights of public-sector workers or pressing to outlaw requirements that employees join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
He also points out that he joined forces with private-sector unions to save Philadelphia-area refineries from closing and sway lawmaker votes behind a massive transportation funding bill.
For Democrats, the state party and many county party committees are likely to be fractured among the eight would-be candidates and unable or unwilling to endorse.
That means a union endorsement may be even more valuable for candidates who will need to build a network of volunteers willing to knock on doors, leaflet worksites, staff a phone bank or collect the 2,000 petition signatures necessary to get on the primary ballot.
But that takes money, and it won't be clear until at least Jan. 31 - the state's deadline for candidates to submit campaign finance reports on 2013 fundraising activities - whether unions are backing up their endorsements with serious money.
So far, three large unions - the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13; and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 - have endorsed Rob McCord, the elected state treasurer.
UFCW 1776's president, Wendell W. Young IV, said he does not feel as though he is wasting resources by donating to McCord's campaign this early.
"If we're sitting on the sidelines, our issues and our voice would be quiet, and I don't think that's the best thing to do considering all the work that needs to be done," Young said.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers locals are backing at least three candidates - McCord, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and York County businessman Tom Wolf - while John J. Dougherty, the business manager of IBEW Local 98 in Philadelphia, is hosting a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, three major unions - the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Service Employees International Union and the United Steelworkers of America - have not endorsed anyone, and it's not clear yet whether they will.
The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the labor federation that says it represents 800,000 people in the state, will not consider an endorsement until April, according to its president, Rick Bloomingdale.
By then, the field of eight Democrats is expected to be thinner, making it easier to decide who is in the strongest position to beat Corbett.
That's the most important consideration, since the leading Democratic candidates are thus far aligned with labor unions, Bloomingdale said.
"So whoever the Democrats nominate," he said, "will most likely be fine with the labor movement."
Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He ma be reached at email@example.com.