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A Capitol Perennial There for Kerry's Picking

Many see Gephardt as a potential running mate. But analysts debate whether he's old Democratic news or a key to the party's future.

June 18, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Five months ago, a crushing loss in the Iowa caucuses caused Rep. Dick Gephardt to bow out tearfully from the Democratic presidential race and announce he would retire from Congress and return to private life at year's end.

But now the Missouri congressman finds himself back in the public spotlight as Sen. John F. Kerry nears his selection of a running mate.

Although no one save Kerry and a few top advisors to the presumed Democratic presidential nominee know where Gephardt ranks among the contenders, his name almost always appears on the shortest of short lists.

His assets as a vice presidential candidate -- extensive experience, reassuring steadiness, a strong pro-labor record -- could lead to his political rebirth. Yet for some, those very qualities are his drawbacks.

Analysts believe a key reason Gephardt's presidential bid never caught fire is that many Democrats viewed him as part of the party's past. For instance, he first ran for the White House in 1988, and in many ways his message, image and style had changed little since then.

Several congressional Democrats, meanwhile, argue that it is more important that Kerry's running mate be someone who can broaden the party's appeal rather than fire up its base.

"People are looking for a new image," said Rep. Joe Baca of San Bernardino.

Baca prefers Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who was another presidential aspirant this year. Edwards, said Baca, is "dynamic and has charisma."

Gephardt's backers counter that such comments sell Gephardt short. They say he has the background and stature to step immediately into the Oval Office, if necessary, and the partisan moxie to go toe-to-toe in a debate with Vice President Dick Cheney this fall. They also claim that Gephardt can rally critical union support for Kerry in the Midwestern industrial belt, including Ohio and his native Missouri.

"He doesn't have many minuses," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a Gephardt ally. "I guess the only minus you could say is that he's been around a long time. But I think that helps the ticket."

Kerry is revealing little about the vice presidential search, even as buzz grew about who might be picked before next month's Democratic National Convention in Boston.

In Detroit on Thursday, he told reporters: "If you want to print speculation, that's your choice. I have not made a decision yet, and I'm the only person that knows when I will or what ... direction that might take, and I intend to keep it that way."

Gephardt also is circumspect. And among the top candidates, he is keeping perhaps the lowest public profile.

The leader of House Democrats for eight years, he now is hard to spot on Capitol Hill. Even when he comes to the House floor to vote, Gephardt usually stays to the rear or the side of the chamber.

On Wednesday, though, he was seen ducking into Kerry's Capitol hideaway for a 90-minute job interview. On Thursday, he flew to New York City for a Kerry fundraiser -- one of several he has participated in.

"I want him to win, and I'll do anything," Gephardt said before his departure Thursday.

He referred questions about the vice presidential nomination to Kerry.

"This is a decision that Sen. Kerry makes, and he's going to make a good decision, whatever it is," Gephardt said. "I just want him to win." Gephardt preferred to talk about nonpolitical pastimes that had occupied him since his own presidential race ended abruptly.

"I get to do things I haven't done for a long time," he said. "Go to museums, take walks with Jane [his wife], cook, go to the grocery store, plant flowers."

He said he was preparing for the wedding of his youngest daughter, Kate, to be held this month in Northern California. He recounted a recent visit to two galleries on the National Mall run by the Smithsonian Institution that he had never seen, despite living three decades in Washington. In one, he said, there were "spectacular" collections of Chinese Buddha figures.

"I really am at complete peace with whatever happens," Gephardt said, describing himself as "copacetic."

Gephardt has been considered for the vice presidential slot before. The party's 1988 nominee, then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, vetted him as a prospect. He was also mentioned as a running mate for Bill Clinton in 1992 and, with lesser frequency, for Al Gore in 2000.

Although he denies any effort to lobby Kerry or Kerry advisors, Gephardt has taken steps that helped position him for the ticket. He endorsed Kerry in Michigan on Feb. 6, one day before that state held its nominating contest. That month, Gephardt also helped line up several union endorsements useful to Kerry as he was still competing against Edwards and others.

Gephardt has another possible edge as Kerry considers his choices -- there is a small army of former Gephardt aides who now hold other influential political jobs but remain loyal to him.

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