Gephardt Seeks Image Overhaul

Posted January 24, 2003 at 6:35pm

By Chris Cillizza and Ed Henry Roll Call Staff Amid signs that Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) is shifting his presidential machinery into high gear, allies of the candidate are privately vowing that he will “reintroduce” himself to voters to counter his image of being a Washington insider.

An unsigned talking-points memo distributed to Gephardt supporters last week, which gives the first sign of the message direction the candidate is likely to take in the primary process, asserts that he will “break out of the Congressional box he has been required to operate in” as the former House Minority Leader.

Without offering specifics, the memo says that Gephardt will do this by offering “cutting edge, yet easily digestible for the public, policy ideas to tackle our nation’s greatest problems.”

The memo adds, “Gephardt will ‘reintroduce’ himself to America — not solely as a Washington figure but as a Midwestern success story, who has taken the values and lessons learned from his parents, teachers and community and forcefully applied them to his politics and ideas.”

But the memo also shows the more combative side of Gephardt, asserting that he is the man who can be partisan enough to beat President Bush in the general election.

“Gephardt already has significant experience in leading the fight against the national Republicans,” said the memo. “If one person is most responsible for the downfall of Newt Gingrich and his revolution, it is Dick Gephardt.”

Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith said that he was unaware of the existence of the memo and would not comment on it. “If I can’t vouch for the authenticity, I’m not going to react to excerpts of a document I can’t read,” Smith said.

Gephardt’s campaign is showing signs of increased activity in anticipation of the official announcement of his bid, which is expected in late February or early March.

The campaign is set to hold its first major Washington fundraiser on Feb. 4, which will serve as the opening round in an overall effort that his aides hope will yield between $15 million and $20 million.

The event will be held at the Georgetown home of Bill and Maria Titelman from 6 to 7:30 p.m., with the minimum contribution to attend set at $1,000.

In addition to Bill Titelman, who is an attorney with Duane Morris LLP, the host committee also includes land developer Herb Miller and venture capitalist Dan Leeds.

One Democratic lobbyist, who has supported Gephardt in the past, expressed some skepticism about the success of the event.

“I don’t know one person here [on K Street] who believes that his campaign is going to catch fire,” the lobbyist said.

But Gephardt has already transferred $2.5 million from his federal campaign committee into the presidential exploratory fund. And the memo notes that he has raised more than $120 million for House candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in recent years.

The memo also claims that he will have the advantage of strong support from his House colleagues, which will help raise millions of dollars.

“Unlike 1988, when House Members raised very little money outside of Washington, the Democratic Caucus is rife with Members who routinely have raised over a million dollars in their districts and states,” said the memo. “Many of these donors and raisers are unique to the House Members, so when employed on Gephardt’s behalf will yield not only significant revenue, but also are funding sources the other candidates will not be able to harvest.”

Already Democratic Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), and John Edwards (N.C.) as well as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have entered the race. The Rev. Al Sharpton has also filed papers for an exploratory committee.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) was considered an all-but-announced candidate before an announcement late last week that he will undergo surgery to repair a heart valve early next month. The surgery will postpone any Graham announcement and could raise questions about his ability to engage in a strenuous national campaign over the next 18 months.

The heightened activity for Gephardt comes amid uncertainty on the staff level.

His closest political adviser, Tom O’Donnell, has decided to take a reduced role in the campaign. O’Donnell, Gephardt’s former chief of staff and longtime confidant, cited “personal and business considerations” for his decision.

Although O’Donnell said he was never officially installed as campaign manager, he acknowledged that “we talked about it and I was helping [Gephardt] put the thing together.”

Another key player in Gephardt’s world, former Communications Director Laura Nichols, remains undecided about whether she will join the presidential campaign.

“I have made a commitment to see him through the announcement,” Nichols said on Friday.

Nichols’ indecision is based solely on the potential effect signing onto a presidential campaign will have on her young daughter.

“I need to make a decision on whether the campaign lifestyle will allow me to be a good mom,” said Nichols. Insiders had widely assumed that Nichols would lead Gephardt’s communications operation throughout the campaign.

Several observers familiar with the situation, none of whom would speak for attribution, claimed that a large factor in O’Donnell’s decision to take on a lesser role was the potential for conflicts with campaign vice chairwoman Joyce Aboussie, who has been at Gephardt’s side for more than two decades.

“Tom O’Donnell and Joyce Aboussie clashed and Joyce Aboussie won,” said one senior Democratic strategist, who is not affiliated with any rival presidential candidates.

O’Donnell flatly denied that allegation. “That had nothing to do with my decision at all,” he said.

O’Donnell, who is a partner in the Democratic media firm Doak, Carrier, O’Donnell, will still be involved in the Gephardt operation, possibly as one of the campaign’s ad makers.

Following his decision, O’Donnell said he helped Gephardt find a “replacement” as campaign manager, which wound up being Steve Murphy, a principal in the firm Murphy Putnam Media.

Murphy was the Iowa state director for Gephardt’s 1988 race. His firm handled the successful county executive race of George “Buzz” Westfall (D) in 2002 as well as Gov. Bob Holden’s (D) 2000 victory.