Within Larger Race, Democrats Waging Joe Six-Pack Primary

Posted May 9, 2003 at 3:09pm

Anyone who has watched the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination so far knows that it is really a number of mini-battles, with various combinations of candidates arrayed against each other at different times and in different places. [IMGCAP(1)]

Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) are competing for the mantle of the electable Southerner, while Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean fight it out in neighboring New Hampshire, as well as nationally, for the upscale, canapé-and-chardonnay Democratic crowd. Graham and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) each look to emerge as the moderate in the race after New Hampshire.

I’ll deal with those and other races within the larger race in upcoming columns, but this week I begin with the fight between Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Edwards for the party’s populist mantle.

Fifty years ago, the populist pie would have been much larger than the upscale pie for the Democrats. But the decline of the industrial unions and the defection of pro-life, pro-gun, working-class voters over to the GOP has changed the makeup of the Democratic Party, making it difficult for both Gephardt and Edwards to emerge as finalists for their party’s nomination.

While the Democrats still have an important blue-collar constituency within organized labor, the party now has other equally crucial constituencies, including environmentalists, women, African Americans, teachers and even Hollywood. Quality-of-life issues have brought more upscale social liberals into the party, changing Democratic priorities and style.

Gephardt, after all, was replaced as House Minority Leader by Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose roots may be in blue-collar Baltimore, but who blossomed as a politician in San Francisco.

Still, working-class and unionized voters play an important role in early states, including Iowa (Jan. 19) and Michigan (Feb. 7), and House veteran Gephardt figures to start off with a significant advantage with those economic populist voters.

But Gephardt, who never tires of telling us he is the son of a milkman, now finds himself competing for support among working-class voters with Edwards, who brought his retired mill-worker father and retired-postal employee mother to the recent South Carolina Democratic state convention and presidential debate.

It is not by accident that both the Gephardt and Edwards campaigns portray them as the only alternative to Massachusetts’ Kerry, initially the presumed frontrunner in the race. But while they dismiss each other as threats, either by pointing to the campaign calendar or the most recent Federal Election Commission filing, it’s clear they know that they are on a collision course.

Gephardt has made a career in Congress of being an economic populist, at least since he moved into his party’s House leadership. Just a few years after his 1976 election to Congress, The Almanac of American Politics 1980 wrote that “Gephardt is one of the younger Democrats who does not always go along with the policy views of labor and liberal organizations.”

That has changed. More recently, the Missouri Representative has been a reliable ally of organized labor, leading the fight against free trade — the North American Free Trade Agreement and the more recent Trade Promotion Authority — and for health care coverage.

Edwards, a wealthy trial lawyer who was first elected to the Senate in 1996, is new on the Washington scene and can’t match Gephardt’s history with the labor movement. And yet, the North Carolina Senator does have a history of representing the “little guy” against corporations in his legal work, and his working-class family background sets the stage for his assertion that he intends to fight for “regular people.”

But Edwards’ style is as appropriate for a Georgetown dinner party as it is for a fish fry or a spaghetti dinner, and that gives him the opportunity to appeal to a broader range of Democrats. His message isn’t as important as his personal appeal. Because of that, Edwards doesn’t need to limit himself to populist voters, while Gephardt depends more heavily on them.

Gephardt, the only true Midwesterner in the 2004 Democratic presidential race, won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 with the help of organized labor, and he is the frontrunner in Iowa again. Kerry and Dean, two New Englanders, appear to be the leaders in New Hampshire. So that leaves Edwards with the need to do well on Feb. 3, 2004 when a handful of states are scheduled to vote.

Edwards’ supporters note, however, that Gephardt’s first-quarter fundraising numbers were weaker than expected, and they argue, quite correctly, that the pressure is on the Missouri Congressman to show better numbers in the second quarter. If he doesn’t, doubts could grow quickly about his ability to compete for the nomination, and that would give Edwards an opening.

Gephardt’s populist base looks larger and more solid than Edwards’. But the North Carolina Senator seems to have potentially greater appeal to other elements of the Democratic Party, and that’s why he poses a threat to Gephardt and the others in the race.


Rothenberg Political Report