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Gephardt Adopts Tax-Cut Message as He Heads South

February 17, 1988|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — "He hasn't changed a bit, it's amazing," said George Coupe, a former fraternity brother of Richard A. Gephardt, and now one of Gephardt's campaign workers here. "He looks exactly like he did in college."

But as a Democratic presidential candidate, the boyish, redheaded congressman from St. Louis has changed plenty--and come under attack from his rivals as a result. And now, as Gephardt readies for his big push toward Super Tuesday on March 8 following his second-place finish in the New Hampshire Democratic primary Tuesday, he is changing the tone of his campaign once more.

Late Tuesday, Gephardt claimed that his showing in New Hampshire proved that his populist message has national appeal.

'One Nation, One Economy'

"In each place we go, we bring the same message," Gephardt said. "This is one nation, one economy, and we proved today that the people of New Hampshire are a part of this country and care about this country."

Still, after focusing almost completely on a populist message about trade and agriculture that carried him to victory in Iowa, Gephardt is now starting to tailor a new tax-cutting theme for white Southerners, voters he hopes will view him as the alternative to Tuesday night's winner, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

On Tuesday night, he told supporters here that his campaign now stands for "tax fairness. If you believe in keeping taxes down for the middle class . . . then this is your fight too."

And David Doak, a Gephardt media adviser, added: "We'll talk about taxes, about Dick Gephardt's record of cutting taxes."

Increasingly, Gephardt aides are trying to convince the press that the Democratic contest is quickly narrowing to a two-man race between Gephardt and Dukakis. They point to recent polls that show Gephardt the front-runner in several Southern states, with Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. trailing badly. Gephardt aides hope that both Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, who finished third here and second in Iowa, and Gore, who apparently came in fifth here, will get left behind by the media wave after New Hampshire.

'We've Narrowed the Field'

"I think it clearly is" a two-man race, Doak said. "I think we've narrowed the field down to us and Dukakis."

And Gephardt himself, noting that he carried Manchester Tuesday--marking the first time since 1952 that New Hampshire's winner did not carry the state's largest city--took a slap at Dukakis. "In fact," said Gephardt, "we carried everything except the Boston suburbs," of southern New Hampshire.

Although Gephardt took his eye off Dukakis in order to counterattack against Simon in the closing days here, Gephardt campaign officials still see Dukakis as their major rival now, and believe that taxes is Dukakis' weakest issue.

As a result, Gephardt hopes to recast himself as a conservative tax-cutter, contrasting his congressional support for the 1981 tax cut, along with the 1986 tax reform package, with Dukakis' past opposition to state tax cuts.

The Missouri congressman noted in a recent interview that taxes will "absolutely" be as big an issue for him as trade as the race progresses.

Accused of Remaking Image

Yet Gephardt's latest attempt to change the tone of his campaign still carries risks. When Gephardt, a savvy Washington player, began portraying himself as a populist in Iowa, he came under heavy attack from other candidates and the media for remaking his persona for political effect.

The same charges could be raised once more if Gephardt now stresses his leadership role in Reagan-era tax reductions.

Although the emphasis on taxes changes the focus of his campaign, Gephardt denies there is any inconsistency in his message. He argues that his tax record has been part of the Democratic debate for months.

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