With presidential dreams, Gephardt returns to Iowa

He won caucus in 1988, but crowded field alters the political landscape

January 20, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MARION, Iowa - Rep. Richard A. Gephardt got a handshake and a friendly grin from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean when they bumped into each other in Iowa the other day.

"I worked for him in '88," said Dean, who campaigned in Iowa for Gephardt the first time he ran for president. This time, Dean is running against him.

The encounter points to how things have changed as Gephardt starts his second presidential try. No candidate is better known in Iowa than the congressman from neighboring Missouri, who won here 15 years ago. Now, though, this state is looking more like a test of survival for him than a launching pad for the Oval Office.

Other, newer candidates are catching the eye of Democratic activists. Gephardt has kept up his Iowa connections over the years, but his support has dwindled.

Gephardt argues that it's wrong to say he is the front-runner in Iowa, where the 2004 presidential season opens with precinct caucuses a year from now. "There is a big field," he said. "It's a jump ball out here."

But his Democratic rivals, and many neutral politicians, call Iowa a must-win for him. If he can't do it in this state, they say, in the heart of his Midwestern base, where he won before, where could he expect to do better?

Gephardt started running for president here almost 20 years ago, in preparation for the 1988 contest. After quitting as House Democratic leader to focus more time on his candidacy, he was back this weekend for his first appearances as a 2004 contender.

"Long time, no see," said Gephardt over and over as he worked the room at party headquarters in Des Moines, where members of the state central committee were meeting.

"You haven't changed at all," one woman said. Gephardt, who turns 62 this month, looks very much as he did when he first explored his presidential possibilities in Iowa in 1984 during President Ronald Reagan's first term in the White House.

In 1988, Gephardt ran short of campaign money and lost the nomination to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. This time, he is telling insiders, he has the national fund-raising contacts to go the distance.

Complicating his Iowa takeoff, however, is the fact that only about a third of his 1988 supporters remain active caucus participants, said state party Chairman Gordon Fischer. And a significant number of those former supporters aren't ready to commit to him again, either.

"People I would have assumed were for Gephardt are neutral. He's going to have to fight for some of them," said Joe Trippi, a Dean adviser who was Gephardt's deputy national campaign manager in 1988.

"There's a lot of affection here for Dick, but [Gephardt's campaign] will have to do a lot more rebuilding than they think," added Trippi, who thinks the party needs a newer voice to compete against President Bush.

New voters

Many union members who made the difference for Gephardt the first time he ran are retired or dead. Some Democrats who will take part in the caucuses Jan. 19 were toddlers back then.

"I've been out here a lot, but that doesn't mean they know me," acknowledged Gephardt. He is having to introduce himself all over again as he starts drawing contrasts with his new rivals.

"I'm the son of a milk truck driver and a secretary," the 26-year House veteran told a party dinner Saturday night in Linn County, where he shared the spotlight with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Dean, both Yale-educated sons of affluent Eastern families.

The $25-a-plate crowd cheered Gephardt's animated, arm-waving stump speech, which included a pitch to the large number of union members in attendance, such as trade protection and better conditions for workers.

"It's time we have a president who will be good for everybody and not just the favored few, and that's what I intend to do," said Gephardt. He also has sharp words for Bush over homeland security, saying that Americans "are no more safe tonight than we were a year and a half ago."

`Not fresh enough'

But the applause was at least as loud and long for the others, particularly Kerry, who is attracting a lot of early notice from Democrats around the country. A Kerry campaign breakfast in Des Moines on Saturday drew a crowd of more than 400, a sign of good staff work by his Iowa organizers.

Karen Beach, a graphic designer from Des Moines, acknowledged that all she knew about Kerry was that "he's tall, he's got good hair and he's very intelligent." But, she said, he just might be the candidate that she (and many other Democrats interviewed at weekend events in Iowa) is searching for: someone who can defeat Bush next year.

As for Gephardt, "I think he's been around too long. He's not fresh enough," she said.

On Friday, Gephardt met privately with a group of Iowa union officials. One of them, Sandy Opstvedt, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers state conference and a 1988 Gephardt supporter, left the session saying it's "too early right now" to know whether she or her union would back him again.

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