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The AFL-CIO last week decided against launching its own ad campaign in support of national healthcare and instead will put about $3 million behind an ongoing effort that generally backs President Clinton's plan.

In reaffirming its support for the Healthcare Reform Project, a coalition of labor, business and consumer groups, the AFL-CIO discarded a number of suggested strategies for an independent campaign. Those other tactics included negative ads targeting congressional districts of lawmakers opposed to healthcare reform.

The decision was expedited by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.), who pleaded with the executive council of the AFL-CIO last week in Bal Harbour, Fla., to pursue a positive advertising tack.

Several union representatives arrived in Florida ready to urge the council to approve an independent campaign that would have focused on the generous health benefits enjoyed by members of Congress.

Any of the 86 unions that belong to the AFL-CIO might still decide to launch their own ad campaigns, and the Communications Workers of America already has, via two Washington political communications companies, Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns & Associates and the Kamber Group.

But the AFL-CIO has no plans "for now" to do so, said Bill Wagner, executive director of the Labor Institute of Public Affairs, the AFL-CIO's communications arm.

"The focus of our paid media will go through the Healthcare Reform Project," Mr. Wagner said. "By pooling our money, we can mount a more effective campaign to balance the large expenditures of the insurance industry. I can't say that will remain the case forever, but right now we have no plans for an independent campaign."

He said a campaign taking on obstreperous Republican lawmakers was among a half-dozen strategies considered by the 35-person council. And apparently it's not out of the question, either for the AFL-CIO or member unions.

"I'm sure we will see some ads like that; the only question is how tough will they get," said Jeff Miller, information director for the Communications Workers of America. He said decisions on individual union campaigns will probably be made this week or next.

The AFL-CIO has obviously put aside any hurt feelings from losing the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement but still faces nettlesome advertising problems.

For example, the Healthcare Reform Project, with a broad membership that includes American Airlines, Catholic hospitals and organized labor, can only produce ads reflecting a consensus view. That makes it unlikely that a coalition partially backed by big business will want to start trashing members of Congress.

Current ads are by Heater Easdon, Boston, and Zimmerman, Markman, Santa Monica, Calif., under the direction of Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates, Washington.M

And as the communications union's Mr. Miller noted, some individual unions remain committed to supporting the so-called single-payer healthcare plan of Rep. Jim McDermott (D., Wash.) that would be almost entirely tax-financed.

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