Gephardt positions himself for 2004 presidential run

Fund raising for party puts him in public eye

October 02, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Glitz and Gephardt seldom appear in the same sentence. But they shared a Hollywood stage the other night, when House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, a terminally square politician with a Boy Scout image, joined Barbra Streisand at a $6 million gala.

The concert, billed as the most lucrative event in the history of the party's House campaign committee, raised money for the final weeks of the Democratic drive to win back the House of Representatives and make Gephardt the speaker.

It might also have been an important event in Gephardt's undeclared, and barely acknowledged, other campaign: for the White House in 2004, a contest that will begin in earnest in a matter of weeks.

Gephardt is regarded as a serious contender for the nomination - though, if Democrats are looking for a fresh face after losing the last presidential election, they might gravitate to someone other than the veteran Missouri congressman.

A fixture in national politics dating to the Carter administration, Gephardt can no longer be described as boyish, though he seems remarkably youthful for his age (61). He made an unsuccessful try for president in 1988, actively considered another run four years ago and won't say whether he's in for 2004.

"I'm going to figure that out after the election," he said in a recent interview at his Capitol office, a few steps from the House floor.

Longtime aides and advisers insist he's all but certain to run, whether or not Democrats retake the House. Democrats need a net gain of six seats to claim a majority.

By his own estimation, Gephardt has been waging the most vigorous campaign of his life this year. He has traveled almost nonstop when the House wasn't in session, raising more than $20 million for Democratic colleagues and challengers in key congressional races.

In the process, according to figures compiled by The Hotline, an online political report, Gephardt has logged more visits to key early primary and caucus states than former Vice President Al Gore or Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, all receiving considerable attention as presidential possibilities.

He has made more trips to California than any of the others, even though it has just one competitive House contest.

Gephardt has been cultivating big donors and celebrities here, including Streisand and Warren Beatty, and trying to broaden his appeal. He appeared recently on comedian Steve Harvey's highly rated radio show, which has a large African-American audience.

Once regarded as a traditional liberal, he has been edging toward the center on economic and military issues. But a wholesale makeover isn't in the cards for the man who once poked fun at himself by donning a Boy Scout uniform to address a Washington press dinner.

He has made progress persuading stars to donate their services for party fund-raisers, including an event headlined by Barry Manilow in Gephardt's home district.

"The Barry Manilow wave is just getting to St. Louis," Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts cracked as he hobnobbed with celebrities from the entertainment world in the lobby of the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards are presented and Sunday's gala took place.

Gephardt has personally courted Streisand, in person and by long distance, with the sort of single-minded devotion he lavished on obscure Democratic activists in key states during his 1988 campaign.

The singer recalls picking up the phone in December 2000, to vent her outrage directly to Gephardt after President Bush had jokingly told congressional leaders that his job would be easier if he were a dictator.

"You know, people never joke," she told the Democratic audience. "That was very revealing."

It isn't clear that Gephardt has won the Barbra primary for 2004, or whether she and other stars will be as eager to support a Gephardt presidential campaign as they have his effort to put Democrats back in charge of the House.

Hollywood fell hard for President Clinton, who assiduously worked the precincts on the west side of Los Angeles. But the entertainment community seems to be up for grabs and hardly ready to throw in with the current Democratic leadership in Washington.

Last week, Streisand's political adviser, Marge Tabankin, sent a fax to Gephardt's office on the singer's behalf, pressing Democrats to respond more aggressively to Bush on Iraq and other issues.

"Barbra feels that the Democratic leadership must not continue to take this lying down," she wrote.

Gephardt was an early supporter of Bush's plan to use military force against Iraq, though he won't say whether he favors unilateral action. He is negotiating with the administration on the terms of a war resolution that most Democrats are expected to endorse.

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