COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — The Iowa road map Sandy Levin carries everywhere these days is ragged, worn at the creases from being unfolded and folded so often.
Iowa is unfamiliar territory for Levin, a Democratic congressman from the Detroit area who now spends much of his free time away from Capitol Hill in places like Keokuk and Sioux City, Dubuque and Council Bluffs. If the territory is new, the mission is not. The veteran Michigan politician is hard at work campaigning.
For example, during a recent 12-hour day here in Council Bluffs, the former labor lawyer met with union leaders, and lobbied political activists by phone and local party leaders over lunch. He visited area reporters and editorial writers and helped organize a weekend rally. He spoke to a high school government class and, afterward, the 54-year-old congressman kicked off his shoes, pulled out his shirt, loosened his tie and engaged an 18-year-old class smart-mouth in a one-on-one pickup basketball game in the school gym. In the evening he was back on the phones talking with local Democrats.
"I've never spent this much time in another state," says Levin, who is in the midst of his eighth visit to Iowa this winter.
And just what is Michigan Congressman Sander M. Levin running for?
Levin is part of an unusual--some say unprecedented--strategy by House Democrats to secure their party's presidential nomination for one of their own, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of St. Louis.
Roughly a third of all House Democrats, liberal and conservative, have agreed to provide early public support for Gephardt, who sought their backing over the last four years as he prepared to run for the nomination.
For congressional Democrats, a Gephardt victory would give them more of a voice in shaping national policy. Candidate Gephardt gains from this base of support, aides say, because most of the members of Congress who support him will be convention delegates and because they are providing him with both high-powered campaign help and with political and fund-raising infrastructure in their home districts.
"What you see . . . are frustrated legislators," Gephardt says. He describes the last 11 years under both Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan as a time when Congress felt impotent and found itself "playing defense."
"They don't want to be sitting on the west lawn of the Capitol swearing in George Bush or a Democrat that they don't think they can really have a satisfying, positive relationship with," Gephardt says. " . . . Legislators realize that who the executive is, is very important to their role."
"The memory of Carter's years are strong for a lot of people," says Levin, a House liberal. "Congress was not very strong, there was a distance, and they want to make sure that isn't repeated."
"I'd like to be able to walk into that Oval Office and say, 'Sit down, turkey, you've really been screwing up,' " says one of Gephardt's most conservative supporters, Rep. Marvin Leath (D-Tex.). "We tried that with Carter and he would just turn redder and redder and when it was over he would chew our butts off," adds Leath, who is also spending most of his time away from Washington campaigning for Gephardt in Iowa.
Almost every day now somewhere in Iowa or New Hampshire, where the presidential selection process begins next month, House members are campaigning for Gephardt. It will remain for the Feb. 8 caucuses to see how successful the effort is. In recent days, Gephardt's position among voters appears to have improved.
"Most of the people I talk to have never heard of me," says Levin, who wears a Gephardt button on one lapel and his blue and gold congressional pin on the other.
Gephardt is the party's fourth-ranking leader in Congress, where he heads the policy-shaping House Democratic Caucus. His campaign claims more congressional support than the other two Capitol Hill candidates, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.
In a grand finale, about 40 House Democrats will blitz Iowa on Gephardt's behalf one week before the Iowa caucuses. Among them will be the second- and third-ranking House Democrats, Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who have helped shape the campaign strategy.
Both Foley and Coelho meet regularly with Gephardt to discuss his presidential bid. Coelho even took part in selecting the campaign manager and assigned his own press aide to serve as Gephardt's spokesman.
Coelho says: "We think Dick has the best chance and we want desperately to win."