Some Ex-Backers Cool to Gephardt’s Bid

Posted October 28, 2003 at 6:36pm

When Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) ran for president in 1988, he benefited from overwhelming support from his House colleagues, a level of backing he has yet to replicate in his second bid for the Democratic nomination.

In October 1987, Gephardt, then a five-term Member and Democratic Caucus chairman, had secured 53 Member endorsements. He currently has 32 House backers, but Gephardt campaign insiders believe he will match his 1988 total prior to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, 2004.

Ex-Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), a Gephardt supporter in 1988 and again this cycle, argued that a victory in Iowa will deliver a number of “on the fence” Members to his camp.

“A lot of people who are looking to be with a winner will come around,” Fazio predicted.

Other past Congressional backers of Gephardt were less optimistic.

“The dynamics are totally different,” said former Rep. Dave McCurdy (Okla.), a 1988 Gephardt supporter who is now the head of the Electronics Industry Alliance. “In 1988 he was a moderate alternative, he was different.”

“People were truly interested in a new campaign and he wasn’t as clearly defined,” added McCurdy.

Ex-Rep. Tony Coelho (Calif.), another 1988 Gephardt supporter, agreed, noting that when the Missouri Congressman ran the first time, he benefited from excitement among House Members about one of their own seeking the presidency.

“To a great extent the novelty of it is no longer there,” said Coelho. Gephardt isn’t even the lone House Member competing this year, as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) is also in the race.

Gephardt backers argue that he is actually in much the same position in terms of Member endorsements now that he was 16 years ago.

At that time, Democrats held 255 House seats; they now hold 205. Gephardt had the support of 21 percent of the Caucus then compared to 16 percent now.

But, even his most ardent supporters acknowledge that after eight years as leader of his party in the House, Gephardt has made some enemies because of difficult decisions made during that tenure.

“We had to make a lot of decisions in a tough environment,” said senior adviser Steve Elmendorf, adding that when Democrats lost the majority in the 1994 elections, Gephardt had to knock Members off exclusive committees such as Ways and Means, Appropriations and Energy and Commerce. “For every person we put on a committee there were five or six we left off.”

The campaign also noted that Gephardt’s decision to support the Iraq war resolution and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act alienated many Members.

Spokesman Erik Smith called those votes “the right thing to do.”

“If he were trying to do the political thing he would have had a lot more Congressional support,” Smith added.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), the first House supporter of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, said Gephardt’s stance on the war was “very distressing” and that his approach to committee assignments led Members to “question his tactics in addition to being unhappy about the outcome.”

As for Gephardt’s current bloc of support, Lofgren said “many who have endorsed him have done so out of a sense of obligation and they are not happy about it.”

Not all of Gephardt’s difficult decisions as they relate to intraparty squabbles turned out poorly, Elmendorf maintained.

Gephardt supported Rep. John Spratt (S.C.) over Rep. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) for ranking member on the Budget Committee in 1996, a fight his candidate won on a 106-83 vote. Spratt has endorsed Gephardt; Slaughter has endorsed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

“I’d rather have the dean of the South Carolina delegation in our corner,” said Elmendorf. South Carolina, which will host its Democratic presidential primary Feb. 3, is shaping up to be a key state in the nomination fight.

Similarly, Gephardt backed Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) over Rep. Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) for conference vice chairman in late 2002, a race in which Clyburn defeated Meeks and Lofgren.

“We are very hopeful Clyburn will return the favor,” said Elmendorf. Clyburn, the most powerful elected official in the state, is expected to back Gephardt. Meeks has thrown his support to Kerry.

Although he remains slightly behind the pace he set in picking up endorsements 16 years ago, Gephardt is still ahead of his eight opponents for the nomination both in raw numbers and the political power his backers in the House wield.

Gephardt’s 32 supporters include Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Matsui (Calif.).

“I am very impressed with the campaign Dick is running,” said Hoyer. “I think more and more Members of Congress will come to agree with me.”

Of the 13 Members who backed Gephardt in 1988 and are currently serving in the House or Senate, only three — Spratt and Reps. Ike Skelton (Mo.) and John Murtha (Pa.) — are publicly supporting his 2004 effort, however.

Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), a former House Member, noted that he has “a lot of friends in this race” mentioning Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) by name, and said he doesn’t plan to endorse any presidential candidate any time soon.

“For now I am going to focus on my own race,” said Wyden, who will stand for a second full term in 2004. No serious Republican contenders have announced against him.

Similarly, Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) said he was too occupied with state issues to weigh in on the current presidential field.

“I have a good personal friendship with Gephardt and a lot of the candidates,” said Nelson. “I am going to get this all settled with [Sen. Bob] Graham before I make a decision.” Graham dropped from the presidential race earlier this month and is currently pondering whether to run for a fourth Senate term in 2004.

Kerry picked up the backing of Rep. Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) on Monday, bringing his total Congressional endorsements to 17 —15 of which are House Members.

Dean, now almost universally viewed as the frontrunner for the nomination, has 11 Congressional backers, including the recently announced support of black Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.).

In many ways, the Gephardt who ran for president in 1988 is a different figure than the one who is currently seeking the nomination.

In his first race, Gephardt was little-known on the national scene and used his Congressional support to bolster his standing with voters.

“In 1987 the campaign put enormous resources into recruiting Members,” said Elmendorf. “He was not a national figure then and needed that for credibility.”

Members were present at both Gephardt’s official announcement and departure from the race and also campaigned heavily for him in the Iowa caucuses, which he won.

“His bringing Members into Iowa gave a national flavor to his campaign and showed it had a breadth and a national base,” said former Rep. Jimmy Hayes (La.), who backed Gephardt for president in 1988. Hayes is now a lobbyist at Adams & Reese.

“Having a Congressional endorsement was a real stamp of approval for him at that stage of his career,” added ex-Rep. Mike Andrews (Texas), a lobbyist at Vinson & Elkins.

Since his first run, Gephardt has served as both his party’s Majority Leader and Minority Leader, and developed into one of the national voices for Democrats. He contemplated a presidential bid against sitting Vice President Al Gore in 2000 but ultimately backed away.

“We have a lot more politics to take care of now and have not put the same emphasis on [endorsements],” said Elmendorf.

One Democratic strategist said Gephardt must walk a fine line between courting Member support to show that his peers believe he is well-suited to be president and appearing to be too much a creature of Washington.

“He will have strong support from Members of Congress, but his challenge is to move beyond being a leader in the House,” the strategist said.

Ultimately, one of the lessons Gephardt may have learned from the 1988 campaign is that while Congressional backing is beneficial, it is not necessarily determinative of the final outcome.

“Members were not extremely helpful in 1988, or he would be President Gephardt,” Hayes said.