Have Democrats Grown Too Accustomed to Gephardt’s Face?

Posted February 7, 2003 at 2:16pm

In times of national crisis, voters often prefer established political figures to unproven newcomers. That should be good news for Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), who has been on the national political scene longer than any of the other Democratic presidential hopefuls. [IMGCAP(1)]

As the House Democrats’ leader from 1995 through the 2002 elections, Gephardt has been one of his party’s most visible faces in the media. With a legion of loyal operatives, innumerable contacts developed from his fundraising travels across the country and plenty of chits accumulated over the years, the Missouri Democrat has more than enough assets to build a top-rate national campaign.

But the early signs are not what they might be for the former House Minority Leader, and Gephardt faces nagging and uncomfortable questions about his ability to excite Democratic activists.

While Gephardt prefers to be seen as “experienced” and “tested,” he is vulnerable to being characterized as recycled and passé. That would be fatal in a party that has often rushed to embrace new faces, and it is almost certainly why his strategists are already talking about how to reposition the Congressman for his White House bid.

Gephardt’s early-January announcement that he was forming an exploratory committee was greeted with a yawn by the national media, which is more interested in Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean than the former House Minority Leader.

That’s understandable given the media’s infatuation with unknown quantities and quirky candidates, but it means that the pressure is on Gephardt to generate excitement in his upcoming campaign announcement, scheduled for Feb. 19. [IMGCAP(2)]

Gephardt, the only Midwesterner in the race, also faces pressure to finish first in the Iowa caucuses, which he won in 1988. But Kerry, Edwards and Dean are mounting major efforts in the state, and even supporters of Gephardt acknowledge that the expectations for the Congressman in the caucuses are “unrealistically high.”

The Missouri Democrat’s likely success in lining up support among his House colleagues is a double-edged sword. While Gephardt’s campaign will use its long list of endorsements to raise money and generate the impression of broad support, the endorsements reinforce the perception of him as a Capitol Hill insider. So too does the fact that, while he’ll have a headquarters in St. Louis, Gephardt’s campaign will be managed from his D.C. headquarters.

And while former Vice President Al Gore’s exit from the race should have been a cause for celebration among Gephardt partisans, it has also added to the general impression that the Congressman is the candidate of the Democrats’ past.

Gephardt’s long list of loyal operatives is also both an asset and a cause for some concern.

While any candidate would prefer to have an army of current and former aides to staff a national campaign, Gephardt’s team of talented veterans doesn’t demonstrate that he is appealing to a new crop of party activists and voters. He needs to generate enthusiasm from Democrats who didn’t back his last bid, or from those who weren’t active in Democratic politics in 1988.

But whatever the questions about Gephardt’s initial positioning, it is a mistake to ignore his assets or dismiss his chances of winning the Democratic nomination.

Though Gephardt once was criticized for being wooden and lacking charisma, he has turned into an effective speaker who shows real emotion. His ability to generate fierce loyalty stems, in part, from his fundamental decency and personal integrity. And he is known for his hard work and self-discipline, important qualities for a presidential candidate.

The Missouri Democrat has built a strong relationship with organized labor, and their support — if he gets it — would be a big asset in caucus states and in states with large union memberships.

And Gephardt could also well benefit from the campaign calendar. The Congressman, who had $2.4 million in his campaign account at the end of January, begins with an advantage in the Iowa caucuses, and a solid win there, though certainly not assured, would boost his prospects in subsequent tests. Missouri has moved its primary to Feb. 3, and a number of large states with considerable numbers of union voters, including Michigan, are still considering moving their contests to early in the calendar.

When he does launch his campaign, Gephardt is expected to reinvent himself as “a Midwestern success story,” according to a memo obtained by this newspaper. Democrats sympathetic to the former leader agree that it is essential for Gephardt to be seen as more than a Capitol Hill legislator.

“He isn’t going to run away from his experience,” one ally insisted. “It is an asset. But he needs to talk now as Dick Gephardt, not as the House Democratic leader.”

The lessons learned in Gephardt’s previous presidential campaign should help him, as should his years on the national stage. But he needs to make a case for himself that excites Democratic Caucus attendees and primary participants, and he must receive strong support from blue-collar voters. If he can do that, he’ll definitely be in the running for his party’s nomination. If he can’t, he could fade very quickly.