WATERLOO, Iowa — When Rep. Richard A. Gephardt sought support for his Democratic presidential candidacy in this battered northern Iowa industrial town a few days ago, there seemed to be new fire in his eye and new passion in his voice.
"This guy is better when his back is against the wall," said a senior adviser to the Missouri congressman, who has been criticized in the past for failing to put enough feeling into his pitch. "He gets more intense and feels freer to reveal more of himself."
If Gephardt's adrenaline seems to be flowing faster these days, it is none too soon. Three or four months ago, the candidate with the red hair and the boyish good looks seemed to be riding the crest of the Democratic wave. Now he is struggling just to stay afloat.
Loss of Momentum
No one is writing off Gephardt yet. But his foes point to a loss of momentum, signaled by his slippage in the polls here--a decline Gephardt must somehow overcome because many feel that anything less than a first-place finish in Iowa's Feb. 8 caucuses could force the 46-year-old six-term lawmaker out of the race.
"He's not dead, but he's got a long way to come back," said Lowell Junkins, former Iowa chairman for the ill-fated campaign of Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. Junkins now backs the current front-runner in the Iowa polls, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon.
Gephardt professes not to pay much attention to poll results. "This campaign is about ideas; it's about beliefs; it's about what you want to do with the country, and the polls are fairly irrelevant," he insisted recently as he drove through the Iowa night on his way to yet another campaign stop.
And the candidate rejects the notion advanced by critics that, in order to survive, he will have to shift positions--particularly his controversial stand on trade, which many have labeled protectionist.
"This campaign is what it is. It's not going to change," Gephardt insisted.
But if he does not need to change his stands on issues, Gephardt's advisers have been telling him that he has to find a better way of getting his beliefs and his personality across to voters by making the one more consistent with the other.
What they are looking for is a solution to a fundamental paradox that has dogged Gephardt's candidacy from the beginning: His major policy proposals--retaliation against unfair trade practices, production controls on farm crops, an oil import fee--seem like drastic changes in long-established policies. But Gephardt himself, with his Eagle Scout appearance and his role in the congressional leadership as chairman of the House Democratic caucus, seems like the very model of an Establishment politician.
Need to Establish Identity
"One of our problems is establishing just who Dick Gephardt really is," said Joe Trippi, his deputy campaign manager.
"I think he has to re-articulate the message and drive it home harder," said Joanne Symons, a consultant who has worked closely with the campaign since it began.
One obstacle is that the ideas Gephardt advocates are complex. "This is not a campaign you can put easily on a bumper sticker," the candidate conceded.
Another impediment is that Gephardt is, as one aide said, "a very private person" who sometimes strikes voters as remote.
"I think he is going to have to be more personally revealing," campaign manager Bill Carrick acknowledged.
And besides Gephardt's need to tell voters more about himself, his aides think that he needs to establish a closer connection between his candidacy and the voters' lives.
"He has to show how his policies affect people," Trippi said. He contends that Gephardt has to try harder, for example, to demonstrate how his agricultural programs are keyed to the needs of farmers and how his trade proposals are designed to save jobs that workers would otherwise lose to foreign competition.
'Better Ways to Explain'
Gephardt concedes the need to sharpen his message. "We constantly look for better ways to explain what I believe, so that people understand it," he said.
To figure out how to do this, his advisers have been looking back at the early days of his campaign, recalling what he did right and analyzing what went wrong.
At first the Gephardt campaign game plan seemed to be a masterpiece, ingeniously drawing on the lessons of the past and Gephardt's own personal strengths, notably his tenacity and relentless energy.
Mindful that Jimmy Carter, at a time when he was an obscure Georgia figure, had won a stunning victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses in 1976 largely by dint of an early start, the equally obscure Gephardt started promoting his candidacy even earlier in the quadrennial calendar than Carter had.
In the two years before he announced his candidacy, Gephardt visited the state 24 times. And by the time he officially declared his intention to run in February, 1987--before any of his Democratic rivals--he was able to release a list of 80 party activists backing his candidacy, most of them personally recruited by Gephardt.
Trade Stand Won Attention