Gore's strength may cause Gephardt to nix presidential bid

November 16, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The surprising Republican loss of five House seats in the off-year congressional elections is having more ramifications than House Speaker Newt Gingrich's decision to jump before he was pushed out of his leadership post.

On the Democratic side, advisers to House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt are reporting that the narrowed GOP majority of 12 seats in the House is causing Mr. Gephardt to give new thought to whether he really wants to challenge Vice President Al Gore for their party's presidential nomination in 2000.

The election results mean that a Democratic pickup of six more seats in 2000, assuming independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont is re-elected then and continues to vote with the Democrats, would make Mr. Gephardt speaker if he stayed in the House.

That rethinking comes in the context of the growing consensus in Democratic circles that, barring a collapse of the economy or deeper trouble for Mr. Gore over his role in excessive campaign fund-raising practices in 1995-96, the next presidential nomination is Mr. Gore's to lose.

Mr. Gore is already far ahead in fund raising for his expected 2000 presidential bid and, with President Clinton's open and aggressive support, has been able to project himself as an activist, substantive vice president unprecedented in the history the office.

No takers?

In elections in which no sitting president is seeking re-election, the usual result is wide-open competition in both major parties, as was the case in 1988. But Mr. Gore's position is so imposing that Mr. Gephardt and other Democrats have to be asking themselves whether a challenge to him would be an exercise in futility.

This is not the first time, however, that a presidential front-runner has seemed invincible after the off-year congressional elections preceding a presidential election year. Those of us who are old enough well remember President Ed Muskie in 1972, as he was only half-jokingly referred to among Democrats at the time.

The late senator, a Lincolnesque figure who had all but overshadowed then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey as his running mate in the 1968 campaign, proved to be such an appealing candidate that one wag on the Humphrey press plane wrote this fake lead: "Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey pledged today that if elected, he will resign immediately and let Sen. Edmund S. Muskie become president."

Although the Humphrey-Muskie ticket lost narrowly to the Nixon-Agnew slate that year, Muskie emerged as the new Democratic darling. Two years later, on the eve of the next congressional elections, he delivered a homey television pitch for Democratic candidates that helped project him toward the 1972 presidential race as the party's clear front-runner.

Muskie was so widely perceived as such within the party, in fact, that a host of big-name Democratic officeholders rushed to endorse him, creating an impression -- falsely, it turned out -- that his nomination in 1972 was a foregone conclusion.

Muskie's defeat

But Muskie proved to be an indecisive campaigner who had no real zest for the exercise. He raged at sudden schedule changes, showing a fierce temper that later contributed to his undoing as a presidential candidate.

On the paramount issue of the day, the war in Vietnam he vacillated, failed to scare off competition and ended up as an also-ran to the prime antiwar candidate, 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern.

By contrast, Mr. Gore so far has been pretty sure-footed and single-mindedly committed to his job as vice president -- and to his task of laying solid groundwork for his presidential run in 2000. There is yet no issue comparable to the Vietnam War looming as trouble for him or as a severe party divider.

Prospective candidates like Mr. Gephardt, therefore, are going to find it difficult to get a toehold of support from which to pry the nomination away from Mr. Gore. Mr. Gephardt has courted the labor movement diligently, and clearly would be its preference right now. But labor no longer calls the shots in the Democratic Party and, besides, Mr. Gore has been working hard to keep his lines open to it.

Two years is a long time in politics and Mr. Gore will find out, as Muskie did, that being the front-runner invites intensified scrutiny that can make him seem less invulnerable as the presidential election year approaches. Right now, though, he is looking like an 800-pound gorilla in the Democratic zoo.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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