Washington -- THE DECISION by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt against seeking the Democratic presidential nomination next year is a classic illustration of how important timing can be in American politics.
The Missouri Democrat had been considered a potentially serious challenger for the nomination largely because his prominent position as majority leader seemed to make it possible for him to raise the kind of money needed to compete effectively in the early caucuses and primaries next winter. But Gephardt's campaign for the nomination in 1988, before he became majority leader, was crippled mostly by his failure to raise enough money.
Last time around Gephardt won the Iowa precinct caucuses and finished a respectable second to Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in the New Hampshire primary, a defeat that could be written off to Dukakis's status as a neighboring state governor. But in the critical Super Tuesday contests, primaries and caucuses in 20 states on the same day, Gephardt was thwarted by two factors. One was the campaign of Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who split the moderate-to-conservative Democratic vote with him in the 14 southern and border states that held a de facto regional primary. The second -- and probably more important -- was Gephardt's inability to compete on even terms in television advertising on such a huge playing field while under attack from the well-financed Dukakis.
The result was that the two winners of Super Tuesday were the most liberal Democrats in the field, Dukakis and Jesse Jackson.
After the fact, many political professionals were convinced that if Gephardt had won the Super Tuesday competition, he would have been nominated and might well have defeated candidate George Bush. The Monday morning quarterbacks base that theory on the likelihood that the combative Gephardt would have had a broader appeal than Dukakis and would have run a tougher campaign against Bush than Dukakis managed in losing by less than 4 percentage points. Although it may be hard to recall now, George Bush was anything but invincible in 1988.
Ironically, many of those same professionals -- including some close advisers and ardent supporters of Gephardt in 1988 -- now believe that this time he would be just the wrong candidate to threaten Bush. Their theory now is that Gephardt is too much the Washington insider in a pinstriped suit and red tie to offer a clear alternative to the Republican president.
Gephardt did not acknowledge as much in announcing he would not run in 1992. But the clear message is that he believes his prospects would be better in 1996, which amounts to a tacit concession that Bush is likely to be re-elected next year. Gephardt has never made any secret of the fact that the White House is his ultimate goal.
Gephardt is, nonetheless, taking a pronounced risk by delaying his quest for the presidency. The landscape is littered with politicians who waited for just the right time to make a particular race. There is always the possibility, however remote it may appear right now, that the Democratic nominee will defeat Bush and be an incumbent seeking a second term in 1996. There is the distinct possibility that the 1992 nominee will run a strong enough race to have a running start for a second nomination in 1996. And there is the absolute certainty that, unless the Democrats win this time, there will be a new generation of candidates running four years from now.
Gephardt's withdrawal is not likely to have any immediate effect on the shape of the Democratic campaign right now. The theory that his absence will make Gov. Mario Cuomo more likely to run doesn't hold water. Cuomo marches to his own drummer and his constituency within the party would be quite different from that of Gephardt.
At this point, the outlook is for four relatively serious contenders -- Gore, Sens. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas -- as well as Paul Tsongas, the former senator from Massachusetts and perhaps Jesse Jackson once again. There also may be one or two others whose intentions have been well disguised up to this point.
The bottom line is that Dick Gephardt would have been automatically part of the first tier of candidates but the timing was wrong to make him any more than that. And in politics, timing can be everything.