Gephardt Seeks to Defend Home Turf

Posted November 14, 2003 at 6:48pm

Any of the eight presidential candidates hoping to make inroads in home-state Rep. Richard Gephardt’s support in the Missouri primary need to follow some simple advice: Head west.

St. Louis — Gephardt’s political base — anchors the eastern end of the state; the western half is ruled by Kansas City. St. Louis County is home to just over 1 million people; Jackson County, which includes the majority of Kansas City, has a population of 650,000.

Combined, the two cities account for roughly one-fifth of the state’s population and a significantly higher percentage of votes cast in Democratic primaries. And, both culturally and politically, they rarely see eye to eye, a fact the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has realized as they concentrate their forces on Kansas City where Gephardt is a less well-known—and beloved—presence.

“We have a 100-year tradition of east versus west in the state,” said Kansas City-based Democratic consultant Steve Glorioso. “Gephardt is not a favorite son here.”

This divide stands as the central metaphor to understanding not only the state but also the potential opportunity for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and other presidential candidates to make inroads into Gephardt’s seeming stranglehold on the 87 delegates — the largest total of any Feb. 3 primary state — who will be awarded in the Show Me State.

Forty-eight of the delegates are apportioned by Congressional district to any candidate receiving at least 15 percent of the vote. The St. Louis area districts (1st, 2nd and 3rd) have the most clout with 18. But, the three Kansas City-area districts (4th, 5th and 6th) have 16 delegates, while the three “outstate” seats (7th, 8th and 9th) represent 14 delegates.

Without question, Gephardt, who has represented a St. Louis County Congressional district since 1976, is the clear frontrunner in the race there.

Gephardt has the backing of his three fellow House Members and has secured nearly unanimous support among state legislators and statewide office holders.

“Everyone is enthusiastically supporting him,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a national co-chairman of the presidential effort. “This is Gephardt country.”

Clay refused to brook the possibility that a Gephardt loss in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 might drive him from the race before he could even get to Missouri.

“We are confident that we will win Iowa,” said Clay, who added that several members of his staff were relocating to the Hawkeye State for the final three months of the campaign to help Gephardt.

Polling in Missouri has shown the Missouri Congressman with double-digit leads over his nearest competitors.

In a September survey conducted by Research 2000, Gephardt received 36 percent while Dean placed second with 22 percent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry took 14 percent and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman 10 percent. The other five candidates received single digits in the poll.

Not taking his victory for granted, however, Gephardt has four full-time staffers in the state in addition to his national political director Joyce Aboussie, who is based in St. Louis.

Aboussie, whom Democratic strategist Donna Brazile described as the “head of [Gephardt’s] political family,” is one of the primary strategists and fundraisers for the campaign. She has brought in better than $3 million for the presidential effort.

None of the other candidates has any full-time paid staff in the state.

Although no one would dispute Gephardt’s strength in the St. Louis area, there is less excitement for his candidacy in Kansas City, argued Glorioso.

“[Gephardt] has run this party for his own benefit with a tilt toward St. Louis that has not gone unnoticed in Kansas City.”

Seeing an opportunity, Dean has concentrated his efforts in the Kansas City area. In mid-October he traveled to the state for two fundraisers that brought in roughly $70,000 for his campaign. Earlier in the year, he raised another $35,000 in Kansas City.

Dean is also building an organization in the suburban Kansas City counties on the Kansas side of the border, where many activists traditionally travel over state lines to help their preferred candidate. An August rally for Dean in Kansas City drew more than 250, although the candidate himself did not attend.

In those areas, “the energy is almost all Dean and no Gephardt,” Glorioso asserted.

As has been the case in his national campaign, Dean has been boosted statewide by an active Internet presence. “Missouri for Dean” has its own Web site and accompanying Web log.

“Dean has sparked a huge interest in what he is saying,” said Jackson County Legislator Scott Burnett, whose House Dean stayed at during his may visit.

Dean’s endorsement by the national chapters of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ensures him some ground troops in the area. The SEIU chapter (Local 96) has roughly 2,400 members; the Kansas City AFSCME affiliate has 1,750.

Even the most loyal Dean operatives, however, believe upsetting Gephardt in Missouri is close to impossible. But, given the excitement surrounding his candidacy in Kansas City, he is the best-positioned of any of the other presidential candidates to make a dent in Gephardt’s delegate harvest.

“Dean is fading some and Gephardt is coming on some,” said Burnett.

Mike Kelley, a spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party, said he “only hopes Howard Dean wastes more time in Missouri,” arguing that will allow Gephardt more opportunity in other key primary states.

Kelley noted that Gephardt has spent time in Kansas City of late “telling people what he has done for Missouri and what he will continue to do.” Gephardt has visited the area six times in the past six months, according to the campaign. “He has been here enough that he has proved to people he does care,” Burnett said.

Aside from Gephardt and Dean, few of the other candidates have evidence of any real organization — paid or volunteer — in the state.

Early on, Kerry secured the support of several members of former Sen. Thomas Eagleton’s (D-Mo.) inner circle, led by attorney Lou Sussman. Sussman, who now lives in Chicago, is on Kerry’s national finance committee. Sussman was national finance chairman of the presidential campaign of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley in 2000.

But, Kerry has done little in the state since, as his campaign has concentrated their attention and resources on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark made his first stop in Missouri on Nov. 9 when he campaigned in Springfield. Clark’s volunteers claim to have a coordinator in each of the state’s nine districts.

Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was in the state several months ago for a fundraiser but did not alert the media and got little coverage in the state, according to knowledgeable sources.