WASHINGTON — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a likely presidential contender who has led his party in four fruitless tries to reclaim the House, intends to announce today that he will step down as minority leader, aides to the Missouri Democrat said.
The two leading candidates to succeed him are Reps. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Martin Frost of Texas.
The contest between the liberal Pelosi and the somewhat more centrist Frost could help chart a new ideological course for an opposition party that is struggling to determine whether it needs an overhaul or a mere makeover to retake power in the legislative and executive branches.
Setbacks in this week's midterm elections left Gephardt's rank and file dispirited -- and a few openly rebellious. Democratic lawmakers, dissecting the results, privately worried that the party needs to find a voice able to connect with the concerns of voters.
As the voice of the House Democrats for the last eight years, Gephardt inevitably drew fresh scrutiny. So too did his counterpart across the Capitol.
But Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) appeared set on running again for party leader despite the loss of the Democratic Senate majority. There were no immediate indications that Daschle would face a challenge from within his ranks.
That was not necessarily true, however, for Gephardt.
Hours before word of his decision spread late Wednesday, Reps. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) publicly suggested that Gephardt should not run.
"After four tries, you have to give somebody else a shot," Ford told CNN. "I'm not alone, I might add."
Gephardt's allies, angered at the breach of rank, dismissed such talk as sour grapes from lawmakers of modest stature who harbor other political motives.
But the clear implication was that Gephardt would have faced some degree of opposition -- although not necessarily defeat -- if he had sought to lead the party again.
Although aides insist that he has not made up his mind about a 2004 presidential run, Gephardt's decision to leave the House leadership has immediate repercussions for the Democratic field of presidential aspirants now taking shape. Freed from leadership duties on Capitol Hill, Gephardt would be able to throw himself full-tilt into preparations for a bid for the nomination to oppose President Bush.
It also would set the stage for a furious one-week race to succeed him as the leader of slightly more than 200 Democrats still smarting from this week's Republican wins.
In Tuesday's elections, the GOP added at least five seats to its House majority, even though history suggests that the president's party should lose ground in a midterm election.
In three previous tries for the majority in 1996, 1998 and 2000 -- all during Bill Clinton's presidency -- Gephardt's Democrats gained ground against the Republicans but came up short each time.
The election to replace Gephardt will be held Nov. 14.
The two veteran Democrats who are seeking his post have been waging a shadow, intraparty leadership contest for months.
Pelosi is seen as one of the party's rising stars, a zealous fund-raiser and an expert on foreign affairs and national security. Frost is a pragmatic tactician with broad political experience, having led party campaign committees and redistricting efforts.
Pelosi, unlike Gephardt, voted against the congressional resolution that authorizes Bush to use force against Iraq. Frost voted for it. But on many issues the two are in sync.
As minority whip, Pelosi is the second-ranking House Democrat. Frost, as caucus chairman, is No. 3.
Had Democrats gained the majority, they might have vied for the positions of majority leader or possibly speaker. In the minority, they will be seeking the high-profile role of leader of the House opposition. The winner of the election will require majority support on a secret ballot of the Democratic members.
On election night, Pelosi told reporters in a conference call that the party should have found a way to criticize Republicans more strongly.
"I do think it behooves the national party to be clear enough about the distinction between the two parties," Pelosi said. "We may not have been strong enough with our message to the public."
Frost, meanwhile, was tacking toward the center.
"The country moved to the right yesterday, and House Democrats won't win a majority by moving further to the left," said a Frost spokesman, Tom Eisenhauer.
Indeed, some of the Democrats who triumphed in swing districts this week backed Bush in the war on terror and on other national security issues. Some voted for his 2001 tax cut. Others opposed gun control or abortion rights.
Gephardt, 61, was acknowledged by many Democrats as an effective minority leader because he managed to bridge the differences between the conservative and liberal wings of the party. There were some party defections on his watch, but not many.