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Campaign Profile:  Richard Gephardt - 2004-01-08


Editor's note: Following a fourth-place in the Iowa caucuses, Richard Gephardt dropped out of the race for the Democratic party nomination for president in 2004. He announced his withdrawal on Tuesday, January 20.

Of the nine candidates vying for the Democratic party nomination for president in 2004, the stakes are probably the highest for Congressman Richard Gephardt. For the 62-year-old lawmaker from the state of Missouri, this is almost certainly his final bid for the White House. VOA's Dan Robinson has this profile of the man who likes to refer to himself as the "son of a milk truck driver" and believes he has what it takes to defeat George W. Bush next November.

Richard Gephardt probably bears more battle scars after 14 terms in Congress than any of the eight Democrats challenging him for the Democratic nomination.

Once a conservative Democrat, Mr. Gephardt underwent a political transformation after entering the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977.

Among his policy shifts, he reversed his opposition to abortion, as he adjusted his philosophies to be more in line with traditional positions of the Democratic party.

These changes often hurt Mr. Gephardt, opening him to criticism, from Democrats as well as Republicans, that he was at base level a "political opportunist."

In 1988, Mr. Gephardt joined a field of Democratic candidates competing for the party's presidential nomination. He did not do well, being labeled as "lacking passion" by political pundits and journalists and dropping out of the race although he had won a key early test in Iowa.

Aside from the historical fact that no serving member of the House of Representatives has been elected President since 1880, Mr. Gephardt has had to overcome perceptions of ineffectiveness in his role as a Democratic leader in Congress.

As House minority leader for eight years, and despite a steadily more forceful articulation of core Democratic positions, he is still blamed by some for the failure of Democrats to return to the majority.

Frustration over this, and his failure to achieve a larger goal of becoming speaker of the House, was evident as he stepped down as Democratic leader after mid-term elections in 2002 that saw Republicans win control of Congress and he formally handed over his House leadership to his successor, Nancy Pelosi.

"Dick Gephardt has led our party in the Congress with great intellect, with great dignity, and he has set a very high standard for us to work on behalf of the American people," Ms. Pelosi said.

"Nancy Pelosi will do a fabulous job," Dick Gephardt said. "She won this on her merit, and her leadership capability and I am confident that with her leadership we are going to win back the House in 2004."

But Mr. Gephardt's "career defining moment" was his decision late in 2002 to support a White House-backed resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq.

With many Democrats opposing the resolution, Mr. Gephardt negotiated with the Bush administration and voted for it. He laid out his reasoning in a White House ceremony.

"In our view, Iraq's use and continuing development of weapons of mass destruction, combined with efforts of terrorists to acquire such weapons, pose a unique and dangerous threat to our national security," he said. "Many of us believe we need to deal with this threat, diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must. Every member of Congress must make their own decision on the level of threat posed by Iraq, and what to do to respond to that threat."

Mr. Gephardt said had helped negotiate key safeguards requiring President Bush to exhaust all diplomatic means and consult with Congress.

Yet, months later, he and other Democrats such as fellow presidential candidates Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry, faced tough questions about the decision to support military action in Iraq.

This apparently cost Mr. Gephardt support in the polls, as many Democrats supported former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who made opposition to the war in Iraq a key part of his campaign.

In debates with other Democratic candidates, Congressman Gephardt escalated criticism of the president, calling Mr. Bush a "miserable failure."

"I said to President Bush in the Oval Office, a number of times early last year, that he had to get the U.N., he had to get NATO, he had to start the inspections, he had to weld together an alliance to do whatever needed to be done," he said. "He failed at that. We're now seven months into the event, or eight months, and he still hasn't gotten it done!"

The capture of Saddam Hussein in December may have eased some of the criticism directed at Mr. Gephardt and fellow Democratic candidates who supported U.S. military action in Iraq.

But Mr. Gephardt's presidential aspirations face a crucial early test of popularity in the earliest stages of the Democratic nominating process.

Political analysts say he needs to prevail in the first of these in the Iowa "caucuses." If he does not win there, as he did in 1988, his campaign may have suffered a fatal blow, although strategy calls for him to participate in similar votes in New Hampshire and other states.

"If Dick Gephardt beats Howard Dean in Iowa, which is certainly possible, it's a very competitive race out there, there are, it appears, a lot of undecided Democrats in Iowa far more than there are in New Hampshire at this point," said Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, speaking on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program Washington Week. "Gephardt has a strong labor base, he won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, if he wins that race that's going to change the dynamic of this."

According to opinion polls, Howard Dean, who picked up support from some key labor unions that otherwise might have gone to Mr. Gephardt, holds a lead in Iowa as well as in New Hampshire.

Mr. Gephardt has been strengthening his campaign efforts in South Carolina, another key early primary state and one that would demonstrate his ability to attract support from African-American voters.

However, he knows that a victory in Iowa may well be essential if he is to build and hold momentum that could lead him to the Democratic nomination.

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