TRENTON - U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) yesterday kept an important date in his courtship of one of the Democratic Party's biggest contributors - the AFL-CIO.

After hopping up a small flight of steps to a stage, and with a broad smile, Obama spoke to about 500 union workers at the Trenton War Memorial building.

He said what they wanted to hear, judging by their applause. He's in favor of universal health care and negotiating with drug and insurance companies to lower costs.

He wants to protect pensions, Social Security and other employee retirement funds. He would help workers organize unions so they can bargain for higher wages.

But he got his best response when he spoke of his opposition to the war in Iraq.

Twice the room stood to cheer him when he said he's sponsored legislation calling for a timed pullout.

"It is time to bring the troops home," he said. And, they rose to their feet again when he said, "There is no military solution."

New Jersey voters' strong opposition to the Iraq war was one of the leading reasons U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) overcame sharp criticism on ethical issues to win last year's U.S. Senate race.

For Obama and the other leading presidential candidates, romancing the AFL-CIO is essential.

With 10 million people in affiliated unions and an increasing proclivity to spend big on federal races, unions are the sugar daddy of Democratic candidates. They also provide get-out-the-vote operations, reaching out to union members and families.

While the AFL-CIO doesn't tell union members whom to vote for, Karen Ackerman, the group's national political director, said 74 percent of union members voted for the candidates their unions endorsed in the 2006 elections.

The AFL-CIO also poured $40 million into those 2006 Senate and congressional races. In the 2004 presidential election, it spent $46 million, according to Ackerman.

Obama asked to have his AFL-CIO date in New Jersey, a state where polls show him trailing Democratic U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is in turn trailing Republican Rudy Giuliani. While in the state, Obama held two fund-raisers and received endorsements from Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Jersey City Mayor Jerry Healy. Both control strong get-out-the-vote operations in areas loaded with Democratic voters.

During the War Memorial event, Mike Ruffey, a married father of two and a 28-year employee at Gerdau Ameristeel in Perth Amboy, told Obama he worried about the diminished manufacturing industry in the nation.

"It's been a rough road," he said.

Obama said enforcing trade agreements would be key to helping solve the problem, but also brought the discussion back to health care.

"If we help control health-care costs, that makes American companies more competitive," he said.

Obama won't know how he did with the union members until August and perhaps even later. The AFL-CIO began these meetings around the country with candidates late last month and plans to wrap them up in June. A forum with all Democratic and Republican candidates who complete a union questionnaire on the issues is scheduled for August in Chicago.

And, it is possible the AFL-CIO won't make an endorsement in the primary. It did not endorse 2004 Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Kerry until after Super Tuesday.