In Iowa, `Fear the turtle!'

January 15, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa - Months ago, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's plodding campaign adopted the University of Maryland's defiant motto - Fear the turtle! - as its slogan.

Online supporters were quick to pick it up, signing off their postings to the campaign's Web site with the words. At a presidential debate in New York in late September, officials of Gephardt's campaign handed out ceramic turtles on behalf of their slow-but-steady-wins-the-race candidate.

By the time of the big Iowa Democratic Party dinner in mid-November, a phalanx of 20-something Gephardt staffers in the state was sporting dark green T-shirts with "Fear the turtle!" emblazoned across the back. The campaign added a tortoise logo to its Iowa Web site. And the state campaign press office began circulating information packets with "Fear the turtle!" on the cover.

But exactly who - presumably a University of Maryland alumnus - was responsible for adopting a sports slogan for the Missouri congressman's presidential drive seemed something of a mystery.

Bill Burton, the campaign's ever-cautious Iowa press secretary, even denied there was a connection.

"I'm sure it didn't have anything to do with Maryland," he said, with complete seriousness. Perhaps wary that the campaign might be sued for copyright infringement, he insisted that it was mere coincidence that Gephardt's team had adopted a motto used by folks in College Park.

"You want to know who on our staff stole that from the University of Maryland?" asked Steve Murphy, the national campaign manager. A season ticket-holder to Terrapins football and basketball games, Murphy had to confess he didn't know who purloined the slogan.

Tim Embree, the staff member who made the turtle T-shirts - now a high-status item in Gephardt's Iowa camp - could not be reached to shed light on the question. A Marine reservist from Missouri, he was called to active duty this month and is believed to be somewhere in Iraq.

Finally, with the help of sources in Washington, the person responsible was found. He agreed to talk - but only on condition of anonymity.

Though not a Maryland grad, the Gephardt official said he grasped the usefulness of the motto as soon as the 2004 Democratic race began to be compared to the famous fable, with Gephardt in the tortoise role.

"Now it's become something of a battle cry," he said. "It's our `Remember the Alamo!'"

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