But one man pulled for Kerry anyway: Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Resisting the Dean allure that captured some of Washington’s biggest union leaders, Schaitberger insisted Kerry remained the Democrat with the best chance of beating George W. Bush, and on Sept. 24, announced that his union was endorsing the Massachusetts senator.

Endorsing Kerry turned out to be the easy part. As Dean stampeded farther and farther ahead that fall, other union leaders needled Schaitberger with questions like, “How does it feel to be on the Titanic?” But Schaitberger stood firm. Late one night in November, his home phone rang. It was Kerry. “Harold, listen,” the battered candidate wearily began. “There’s going to be a very bad Zogby poll coming out tomorrow,” Schaitberger cut him off. “John, save your energy. You don’t have to worry about me.” Firefighters honored a code of brotherhood and loyalty, he said. The IAFF would stick with him no matter what the polls said.

That unwavering support proved critical to Kerry’s stunning comeback. Throughout the primaries, Kerry never missed a chance to offset his stiff patrician image with the blue-collar credibility of firefighters. Kerry appeared at dozens of IAFF-organized “firehouse chili feeds” across New Hampshire, in which he ladled out spicy slop and talked politics with locals. In Des Moines, Iowa, he played hockey with local fighters. And on the night of the State of the Union in January this year, he conducted an ABC interview from a Concord fireman’s living room. In both states, hundreds of firefighters also helped turn out voters and post signs. Kerry made no secret of his gratitude. During his victory speeches in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Virginia, television viewers saw the same tall, mustachioed man just over Kerry’s left shoulder. That was Harold Schaitberger.

Now Schaitberger is the envy of all those other union leaders who wrote off Kerry and leapt onto the “Dean Express.” “He’s certainly in the catbird seat,” says one official of the AFL-CIO, of which IAFF is a member. “He was right–and nobody else was.” Earlier this year James Carville predicted on CNN that a Kerry nomination would make Schaitberger “the most powerful person within organized labor.”

A few days before John Kerry delivered his Super Tuesday knockout punch to John Edwards, I stopped by Schaitberger’s downtown Washington office to see how he was feeling about his charmed standing. In a reception area hung framed photos of soot-covered firemen, as well as an eerie image of the World Trade Center ruins with an American flag in the foreground: a reminder of the day that forever changed the emotional force of the word “firefighter.”

The first thing I noticed inside Schaitberger’s office was a giant “AFL-CIO SUPPORTS KERRY” novelty pin behind his desk; it’s the room’s center of gravity. Schaitberger himself is a big man with broad shoulders and thick hands. In a pinstriped suit with his silver hair combed back neatly, he has the polished look of a K-Street lobbyist. He sits in an armchair, and when I ask him what he tells those people who once snickered at his support for Kerry, he smiles knowingly. “Sometimes less said is more said.”

But Schaitberger isn’t usually one to hold his tongue. After Tom DeLay named him in a February 2003 fund-raising letter that accused “union bosses” of “exploiting the war effort to quietly grab more power,” for instance, Schaitberger fired back with invective worthy of, well, Tom DeLay: “Frankly, it was deceitful and insulting for you– who chose to battle water bugs and cockroaches during the Vietnam War instead of serving the nation in some useful capacity–to now cloak yourself in patriotism and flag-waving,” he wrote. Later, Schaitberger showed me a photograph of himself riding on Air Force One with Bill Clinton, who, like Kerry, enjoyed and profited by the support of the firefighters. Whereas most people boast of giving presidents influential advice, Schaitberger said he was griping to Clinton about various administration policies, and seemed proud of the irritated look on Clinton’s face. “What do you think is on his mind? He’s thinking, ‘This guy comes on my plane and gives me a boatload of crap!’” The notion clearly delighted him.

Schaitberger learned to be fearless the hard way: running into burning buildings. Fleeing a troubled home in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Annandale, Va., at age 17 in 1963, he moved into a local firehouse with the permission of a firefighter who became a father figure to him. “At that point, I knew that’s all I wanted to do.” When he was 20, Schaitberger lied about his age to meet the county fire department’s minimum age of 21, and soon after he was fighting blazes. He says he faced no more danger than any other fireman, but remembers one particularly perilous blind leap through a closed window, his only way out of a burning house. In the late 1960s, Schaitberger grew active in union organizing. By 1973, he was running the Virginia firemen’s union, and a few years later he joined the national union in Washington. He spent 12 years leading the IAFF’s political wing, 12 more as the association’s office chief of staff, and was elected president in 2000. Leading a union of 263,000 members, the 16th largest among AFL-CIO unions, Schaitberger hasn’t been as prominent as some other labor leaders. But his early support for Kerry, coupled with the ill-fated endorsements of Dean by Service Employees Industrial Union chief Andy Stern and AFSCME’s Gerald McIntee, may change that. Indeed, in March, Schaitberger was named a co-chair of the AFL-CIO’s newly-formed 2004 election strategy committee. Kerry’s deputy campaign manager, Steve Elmendorf, says, “He’s going to be a key surrogate and a key person in terms of our relationship overall with labor.”

Important as firefighters were to Kerry in the primaries, they’ll mean even more to him this fall. Their blue-collar credibility should help to blunt the charge that he’s a liberal elitist, particularly among working-class swing voters. Their patriotic heroism should also deflect GOP smears that Kerry takes his advice from Jane Fonda. When Bush rolled out ads featuring footage of the aftermath of 9/11, for instance, the Kerry campaign had Schaitberger denounce the ads as tasteless.

Of course, George Bush isn’t about to cede the mantle of firefighter’s hero. The Bush campaign ad replaying the president’s bullhorn speech atop that Ground Zero rubble pile, with his arm slung around a retired fireman, is probably being edited now. “I know that picture very well,” Schaitberger says ruefully. Schaitberger says he also fully expects Bush to roll out firefighters for “staging opportunities” at the Republican convention in New York this fall. Such imagery will make Schaitberger’s life complicated–especially given that 44 percent of his union membership consists of registered Republicans, people who “tend to be very strong for the military, national defense,” as he puts it.

Schaitberger says some of his conservative members grumble about the Kerry endorsement. But he argues that Bush let them down after 9/11, by refusing to deliver enough “resources”–federal dollars, that is–to firefighters nationwide. (Among other things, he says, firefighters are tired of “half-assed, outdated, or uncertified equipment.”)

Kerry has promised to use federal money to hire, equip, and train 100,000 new firefighters around the country–a program modeled after Bill Clinton’s COPS program for police officers. It’s a great campaign plank, but the public-policy benefits are murkier. More than two years after September 11, it’s still not clear how much training and equipment is truly needed by local first responders, and measuring the benefit of federal spending isn’t easy. It’s possible that a President Kerry could reward his firefighter backers by pouring endless federal dollars down a black hole.

Certainly, Schaitberger won’t hesitate to let Kerry know if his members aren’t getting everything they need. His office is just a short stroll from the White House. The thought brings a grin to Schaitberger’s ruddy face: “It won’t be very hard to go over and say hello.”