Tortoise vs. hare in Iowa

November 19, 2003|By Jules Witcover

DES MOINES, Iowa - The last man off the flight from Chicago to Des Moines last weekend was Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, arriving alone for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner at which he and five other Democratic presidential candidates were to be the featured speakers.

As he walked through the terminal, Iowans readily recognized the frequent visitor who won their presidential precinct caucuses in 1988, and a few came over to shake his hand.

Shortly afterward, a caravan of 47 buses made its way through Des Moines in a traffic-stopping show of support for the outsider who is seen as Mr. Gephardt's chief rival in the Jan. 19 caucuses, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.

That night, inside the cavernous Veterans Auditorium, hordes of young supporters of Dr. Dean and Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina packed the balconies, at $40 a seat. They waved large blue-and-white placards, "papering the house" in a costly competition of little real significance.

Few signs for Mr. Gephardt were visible. Rather than playing what he called "the sign game," John Lapp, Mr. Gephardt's state campaign manager, chose to put his resources that day into extensive door-knocking by volunteers in and around Des Moines.

For the dinner, the Iowa Democratic Party set up a kind of human cattle run through the tables on the arena floor, where seats went for $100. Mr. Gephardt and his wife, Jane, were the first to come in through the chute. Other candidates followed.

But when it was Dr. Dean's turn to enter the hall, he suddenly appeared high above in the balcony, amid a sea of his young supporters pumping their Dean placards and cheering their heads off. The scene made a dramatic and vivid tableau that underscored the differing styles of the orthodox Mr. Gephardt and the outside-the-box Dr. Dean.

Mr. Gephardt is the vanilla candidate, Dr. Dean the exciting flavor of the month. And because Mr. Gephardt won here in 1988, the conventional wisdom says he must repeat on the night of Jan. 19 or see his second presidential bid crumble. Nurturing his core support over the last nearly 16 years, he now must add to it as Dr. Dean aggressively recruits first-time voters to swell the turnout beyond the more than 100,000 voters who attended the caucuses in Mr. Gephardt's earlier victory.

The most recent Des Moines Register poll has Mr. Gephardt at 27 percent to 20 for Dr. Dean, 15 for Mr. Kerry, 5 for Mr. Edwards and the rest behind. So the race is generally regarded as a two-man affair, akin to the fabled one between the tortoise and the hare - Mr. Gephardt going slow and steady as Dr. Dean sprints with all the M-ilan of a media-spotlighted candidate.

The question in Iowa is whether perseverance can beat glitz. As Dr. Dean bombastically taps into Democratic anger against President Bush for his war and his tax cuts for the rich, Mr. Gephardt patiently presents his own agenda based on 27 years of congressional experience and leadership.

It is a gamble that his solid-citizen style, farm boy looks and detailed proposals for universal health care, agricultural and energy independence will trump Dr. Dean's impassioned plea to Iowans to "take back America" from Mr. Bush.

Early the next morning, a Sunday, about 50 casually dressed Iowans turned out at a library in the rural town of Waukee and listened intently as Mr. Gephardt spent an hour spelling out his campaign proposals. Evelyn West of Waukee said of the experience: "It was wonderful coming here and hearing him, what he believes in."

Mr. Gephardt has only two more months of homey, retail selling before caucus night, against the hot, angry and well-financed candidacy of Dr. Dean and the others contending here. The Missourian is an even-tempered man with a campaign style to match, committed in the remaining time to pinning his hopes on being the tortoise who wins the race.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau, and he appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. His latest book is Party of the People: A History of the Democrats (Random House).

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