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Gephardt Steps Down as US House of Representatives Minority Leader - 2002-11-07

Democratic Party lawmakers in Congress are scrambling to re-organize in the wake of last Tuesday's mid-term election that shifted the balance of power in favor of Republicans. The Democratic leader in the House of Representatives formally stepped down, and the competition to succeed him is underway.

No stranger to television cameras during eight-years as minority leader, Richard Gephardt chose to issue only a written statement explaining his reasons for stepping aside.

Congratulating President Bush and Republicans for their victory in Tuesday's election, Mr. Gephardt said Democrats need a leader who can devote undivided attention to returning the party to the majority.

He makes no specific mention of his presidential ambitions, but says he intends, in his words, "to take on this President and the Republican Party from a different vantage point."

Mr. Gephardt fired some sharp criticisms at Republicans and President Bush. He called the Republican House majority "uncompromising and rigidly conservative", and he said President Bush "refused to lead" on key issues.

Two House Democrats, from different political wings of the party, are running to replace Mr. Gephardt.

One is Martin Frost, a moderate Texas Democrat. Referring to Tuesday's election, he said Democrats need to recognize that American voters had "shifted somewhat to the right." Democrats, he says, need to re-adjust their message.

"If we are going to fight the Republicans on foreign policy and national defense, we are going to lose that debate every single time, and we can not let that be the only debate," he said. "If we are going to have a chance of reaching out to the American public we have got to reach out to them on fundamental economic issues."

Republican gains in the election have been attributed to wide popular support for President Bush in the war against terrorism.

Competing with Mr. Frost for the top Democratic House post is liberal California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who claims support from at least 110 of her Democratic colleagues.

Mr. Frost says many moderate and conservative Democrats consider Mrs. Pelosi too far to the left.

House Democrats elect leadership teams next week, as Congress begins a "lame-duck" session before newly-elected lawmakers take office in January.

President Bush telephoned Mr. Gephardt and the outgoing Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle. He says he urged congressional leaders from both parties to work with him on unfinished priority legislation, in particular, the bill to create a new department of homeland security.