Gephardt Targets Dean
Memo to Members Stresses Staying Power
Seeking to convince a key constituency that he remains in the top tier of candidates, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) is circulating a memo to Members returning from August recess arguing that he remains the strongest Democratic alternative to President Bush despite the current momentum of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The letter from Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy, which intersperses race analysis with quotes from various national publications, maps out a Gephardt victory scenario beginning with a win over Dean in Iowa, where the former House Democratic leader appears to be losing ground. The most recent poll in the Hawkeye State showed Dean leading Gephardt 23 percent to 21 percent, the first time the former governor has led the Missouri Congressman in any Iowa polling — albeit an edge within the survey’s margin of error.
“Gephardt’s strength in Iowa will increase in the coming months as Gephardt’s blue collar base begins to focus on the race and move from undecided to the Gephardt column,” Murphy argues in the memo. “Beating Dean in Iowa will have a significant impact and provide real momentum as the campaign moves to New Hampshire and the other early states.” Most neutral observers see Iowa’s Jan. 19, 2004, balloting as a must-win for Gephardt, given that he won the caucuses as a relatively low-profile Congressman in his first bid for president 15 years ago.
Murphy’s memo will doubtless be viewed as an effort to stem any tide of defections by his House colleagues. Gephardt leads the field in Congressional endorsements with 31, largely a result of the eight years he spent leading his party’s efforts in the House, but Dean picked up several Member endorsements over the recess, including those of Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Rául Grijalva (Ariz.).
It also comes as the other contenders for the Democratic nomination are ramping up for the sprint to mid-January. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) made his campaign official Tuesday, and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) will formally announce his bid within the next two weeks; Kerry and Gephardt joined Dean and Edwards on the air with paid advertising this week in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) as well as former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and the Rev. Al Sharpton are also running. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark is likely to join the contest later this month.
The latest glimpse into the Gephardt team’s strategy reveals how much Dean’s meteoric rise to the front of the Democratic field has changed the calculus of the race for the other eight candidates.
Not only has Dean developed something of a cult following among party activists by touting his opposition to the war in Iraq, he has also surprisingly emerged as the fundraising heavyweight in the race, depending largely on the power of the Internet as a money-gathering tool.
Dean led the nine candidates in fundraising in the second quarter, bringing in $7.4 million, and campaign manager Joe Trippi has already signaled that the campaign is likely to easily surpass the $10 million mark in funds raised from July 1 to Sept. 30.
Dean’s surge has left Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman all arguing that they are best positioned to provide an alternative to Dean when primary voters turn their focus to the issue of electability, which they all agree is the soft spot for the former governor.
Some in Congress have expressed apprehension that the firebrand liberalism that has been Dean’s campaign trademark to this point in the race will alienate the crucial swing voters needed to defeat the president next November, costing the party Senate and House seats.
“We think Members will focus more on the race now, and we want them to see that Gephardt will help them most at the top of the ticket,” a Gephardt senior adviser explained. The strategist added that Members should “expect to see more over the coming weeks on why Gephardt and not Dean is best for their self-interest.”
Murphy echoes that idea in the memo, writing that “Gephardt is the toughest candidate for George Bush to face in the general election” and citing a mid-August national poll that showed Gephardt trailing the president by just 6 points, 49 percent to 43 percent.
Gephardt’s profile as a “Midwesterner from a modest background” plays well in the industrial Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin) as well as Border States (West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas), where his campaign estimates 70 percent of the swing electoral votes reside. “Gephardt has a natural appeal to swing voters in these states and will have a much stronger cultural connection to those voters than any of the other Democratic candidates,” Murphy states.
In the 2000 presidential election, then-Vice President Al Gore carried three of these states (Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin), taking 48 electoral votes. President Bush won the remaining five states and their 50 electoral votes.
On the message front, Murphy believes that the “Democratic nominee will win or lose the election against Bush based largely on winning the economic argument.”
He adds that Gephardt is the party’s most competent economic messenger as a result of his proposal to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts to fund his comprehensive health care plan. That campaign plank has drawn criticism from practically all of Gephardt’s primary foes, who have dismissed it as impractical and too expensive.
Eight days after the Iowa caucuses comes the New Hampshire primary, a state where expectations for Gephardt are significantly lower.
Gephardt will “build on a solid base” in the Granite State, where he finished second to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, according to Murphy. “A win over Dean in Iowa will send Gephardt into New Hampshire poised to win a strong third place showing or possibly second place if one of the favorite sons stumbles in the primary,” he writes.
The campaigns then must quickly pivot to compete in the seven states that hold nominating contests on Feb. 3.
South Carolina is generally regarded as the most important state in this group as it is the first Southern primary and the first one in which black voters are likely to provide the winning margin. Estimates put the black vote in the Democratic primary at roughly 45 percent.
Gephardt’s opposition to free-trade agreements is likely to serve him well there, his campaign argues, as the faltering textile industry in the Palmetto State has been blamed on the exportation of such jobs to foreign countries. Kerry is an ardent free trader while Dean favors more trade, though with protections for American workers.
Gephardt is also likely to win the backing of Rep. James Clyburn (D), the most influential black politician in the state.
The Missouri Congressman will win an uncontested victory in Missouri, and Murphy argues that his strong backing from union members will aid him in North Dakota and New Mexico; the endorsement of Hispanic Arizona Rep. Ed Pastor is likely to provide Gephardt a foothold in a state where Latinos are a key constituency in the primary, Murphy adds.
Gephardt is also the only candidate given a chance to win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, which will decide whether to offer its support in mid-October. Gephardt has spent months courting organized labor groups, and the support of the umbrella organization — along with the field operation it conveys — would be a huge boost for his campaign.
And four days after New Mexico and North Dakota vote, the primaries will come to Michigan, one of the strongholds of organized labor and the place the Gephardt campaign has pinpointed as where they hope to secure the nomination.
“Gephardt’s steadfast union support and his strong support in the African-American community would make him tough to beat in Michigan,” Murphy writes. “A win here would cement Gephardt as the nominee.”