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2004 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION / THE DEMOCRATIC HOPEFULS

Richard Gephardt

Missouri Congressman, in Second Run at the White House, Says His Vast Experience and 'Steady Hands' Set Him Apart

June 08, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

ONAWA, Iowa — Dick Gephardt is talking food, discussing the Indian dishes he whips up on the rare occasions he gets to cook. The spicier the better, he says, even if his wife, Jane, can't handle the really hot stuff.

And flowers, Gephardt says. He loves to grow flowers: "I get a big kick out of planting a seed or small plant and watching it develop, trying to nurture it and get it to develop into a beautiful flower or vegetable."

The Missouri congressman is far from his planter boxes and untended pots and pans. Still, he seems at home as he sits in a dirt-streaked purple minivan, shuttling across western Iowa from one Democratic gathering to another, musing over curry and crocuses.

Gephardt, 62, is running for president for the second time. And even though he has just left a confrontational crowd that badgered him for backing President Bush's war policy toward Iraq, his serenity suggests a man who has done and seen it all before.

His problem is that a lot of Democrats view Gephardt with the same been-there, done-that sentiment. "A tremendous leader of our party," said Tom Whitmore, a retired school administrator in Sioux City. "But we need new leadership."

It is a common refrain among Democrats and perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between the candidate and his party's 2004 presidential nomination. Gephardt acknowledges as much with characteristic calm, displaying the same let-us-reason-together unflappability that assured and annoyed his charges during nearly eight years as Democratic House leader. He understands the attraction of "newness," Gephardt says, but thinks he has something more compelling to offer voters in this anxious age: experience.

"I think especially in a time of all these challenges coming at us they want someone who has steady hands and who's seen all this stuff and performed at the highest level of the government," Gephardt says, as the gently sloping Iowa countryside rushes past his passenger-side window. "That's what I have to bring to this, that's what I am. I'm running as who I am, and that's what I think people should want."

After 25 years in Washington, Gephardt is a vague and familiar figure to most Americans. He ran for president in 1988 as the scourge of Japanese imports, making him the favorite of organized labor. In January 1995, he surrendered the gavel to Newt Gingrich to end 40 years of Democratic rule in the House -- "one of the worst days of my life," he said.

Throughout the Clinton years he kept up a cordial if often strained relationship with the White House. (Gephardt and then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee were rivals in 1988 and tensions between them still linger.)

On his second try Gephardt is a far more sure-footed candidate than he was 15 years ago -- but one still capable of surprises.

He is not one of Washington's more celebrated orators. Yet he brought a skeptical crowd of 400 Democratic insiders to their feet with a passionate speech on party values last winter that was all the more impressive because he winged it; just before stepping through the curtain Gephardt learned the TelePrompTer was broken and his text had disappeared.

A product of Capitol Hill, where progress tends to be measured in inches, Gephardt has offered the most ambitious and expansive platform of any Democrat seeking the White House, saying he would finance it by repealing Bush's hard-won tax cuts. Among the major initiatives are plans to establish a federal teachers corps, launch a crash program to reduce America's oil dependency and promote an international minimum wage.

Bolder still, he talks of ending the nation's 50-50 political paralysis and forging a new governing majority by unifying Democrats, independents and even some Republicans around proposals such as his far-reaching plan to provide health care for every working American -- not through a government program but tax incentives given to their employers.

"I can pass this bill. I can get business for it. I can get labor for it. I can get the health-care community for it," Gephardt tells an audience in Des Moines, although the $2-trillion plan is already under siege from critics who call it too big and too expensive.

First, Gephardt has to win the Democratic nomination, and that means stepping up his lackluster fund-raising and wooing holdouts within his own party, including many of his old friends in organized labor. "It's safe to say that Dick is labor's fair-haired son," said Bridgette Williams, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. "But I wouldn't take for granted [labor's] endorsement."

Gerald McEntee, head of the Political Education Committee of the national AFL-CIO, agreed. "The main thing we're looking for this year is someone who can win," said McEntee, who vowed not to let his personal affection for Gephardt influence labor's hard-nosed endorsement decisions. "So the question is, what is Dick's electability?"

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