Gephardt's last stand

Robert Novak
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Posted: Jan 12, 2004 12:00 AM

CARROLL, Iowa -- Rep. Richard Gephardt, with characteristic calm, meticulously touched all points of his 20-minute stump speech last week before about 50 Iowans at Sam's Soda and Sandwiches here. He did not convey the urgency of what could be the last campaign in a long, distinguished political career. It has always been assumed he must win the Iowa caucuses next Monday night for his presidential candidacy to survive. What's new is that he really has a chance.

Iowa habitually has been described as a two-man race with newcomer Howard Dean from Vermont surging ahead of Gephardt, a familiar face as the 1988 caucus winner from neighboring Missouri. In fact, just a week ago, it was a one-man race with Dean the sure winner here en route to the nomination. But there has been a change the last week. Neutral Democrats now think it possible for Gephardt to win in Iowa, surviving for coming contests in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Michigan, where he has a potential voter base.

Sen. John Kerry has been moving in Iowa toward a strong third-place position while national front-runner Dean has slipped under heavy attack and because of his own gaffes. Enough upscale voters may be switching from Dean to Kerry to make Gephardt an upset winner. If that happens, it profoundly transforms the Democratic calculus in opposing George W. Bush's re-election.

Gephardt on the campaign trail could not be more different than Dean. He gives no hint that Sept. 11, 2001, ever happened. He didn't mention terrorism or the Iraq war in Carroll, at a previous stop at Cronk's Cafe in Denison or the night before at the Bluffs Area Family Center in Sergeant Bluff. Nor did anybody ask him about the war during question periods. He does not mention his votes to authorize the war and to finance the occupation.

That silence is not an effort to evade overwhelmingly antiwar sentiment in the pacifist Midwest, charmed by Dean's antiwar rhetoric. Polling data indicates that most Iowans support the war, and that includes many Democrats (such as the scrupulously neutral new state party chairman, Gordon Fischer). To Gephardt, the war never has been foremost in the minds of Iowans. "Politics is all local and personal," he told me after his Carroll appearance, "and people want answers to their problems."

Gephardt talked about jobs, health care, trade and agriculture. He began his speech with the declaration that "everything starts with a good job" and went on to maintain that liberal trade policy "is not working." What he said here was not much different from his pronouncements in 1988. His elegy for the dying family farm could have been delivered by Walter Mondale in 1984 or Hubert

Humphrey in campaigns dating back to 1960.

Still blond and even boyish at 62, Gephardt has changed little in style and physical appearance. Although he joins obligatory criticism of Bush by calling him a "miserable failure," he sometimes slips by referring to him as "President Bush" instead of calling him just "Bush" in the current Democratic style. The old pro-life, pro-tax cut (urging a 30 percent top marginal rate) Gephardt disappeared long ago, but he still evokes moderation and restraint.

Publicly, Gephardt mentions Dean only in passing, but his own demeanor rejects left-wing politics of anger. "In the end," he told me, "people want more than anger. I firmly believe that you can't win a general election if you go left in the primaries and then go hard right."

That sounds like discredited old politics to the thousands of suburban youth from Oregon to New York, swarming into Iowa to work for Dean. A visit to the crowded, busy Dean headquarters in downtown Des Moines recalls memories of Gene McCarthy's children's crusade of 1968. It is clearly a movement, even if its goals are undefined.

The only movement connected with Dick Gephardt's candidacy is the labor movement. Some 900 members of the 21 labor unions that have endorsed Gephardt are coming to Iowa. They will try to get his aging constituency to the caucuses on a predictably cold winter's night, with not only one veteran Democratic warrior's fate but the direction of the party at stake.