Archive for Friday, January 16, 2004

Gephardt back in Iowa

January 16, 2004


— Since Jimmy Carter set the pattern, dozens of presidential hopefuls have flocked to Iowa. And on a March day in 1985, a relatively unknown Missouri congressman named Dick Gephardt joined them.

In the ensuing 19 years, no candidate has spent more time in the state that launches the nominating process -- 148 days preceding his 1988 victory, more than 65 in this campaign and many others in between.

This seemingly endless quest could come to an abrupt end if the former House Democratic leader fails to head off Howard Dean in Monday's caucuses. But the still sandy-haired congressman displays a determined optimism as he slogs through the state's small towns, pleading for votes in a race that could be decided by just a handful of Iowa Democrats.

"I'm a pretty positive person," he told an interviewer as his small entourage raced across the barren Iowa countryside, dotted with patches of melting snow on a bright, relatively mild mid-winter day. "I'm convinced I'm going to win here."

He likened his quest with the battle three decades ago in which his son Matt, then 2, overcame cancer with the aid of experimental drugs made possible by his health insurance. It's something he seldom mentioned in 1988 but has become a staple in his appeal this time.

"Once you go through what we did with our son, then nothing ever makes that much importance to you," he said. "I want to do this. I know I can be a good president. But it isn't something that has to happen for me to have a good life."

Candidates always exude optimism, and Gephardt is by nature a sunny, optimistic man, plain-spoken and serious, a determined Midwesterner who often recounts his humble beginnings as the son of a milk truck driver and office secretary. He's convinced, with some reason, that he would do better against President Bush than Dean would.

But he acknowledged he faces a daunting challenge in Iowa, where an enthusiastic groundswell of support for Dean's anti-war stance threatens to overwhelm the patient, town-by-town organizing that enabled Gephardt to beat another large Democratic field 16 years ago.

He said that when he backed Bush on the war against Iraq, he knew it would be "a real challenge" in Iowa. This state has a history of pacifism and anti-war sentiment that gave Sen. George McGovern his first boost to the 1972 Democratic nomination.

Unsurprisingly, Gephardt never mentions the war in his prepared comments, which focus heavily on his opposition to U.S. trade policy, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, and his plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts and use the funds to ensure every American has health care coverage.

He received an enthusiastic response from the elderly farmers, union members and retirees who dominated the 50 people at this town's 101-year-old public library.

"God bless you, Dick," said Suzanne Peters, a 59-year-old teacher who formerly lived and taught in Dallas' Oak Cliff area as she shook his hand. "We're really counting on you to get to the White House."

She said she especially liked his opposition to NAFTA.

But even his hard-line trade views failed to sway Craig Halverson, 52, a postal worker who said he was disappointed in Gephardt's response to a pointed question about the need to curb immigration from Mexico. "I came here to see if I was going to vote for him," he said, adding he probably would stay home Monday.

But the congressman's trade stance isn't his principal handicap in economically hard-pressed Iowa. Later, in Council Bluffs, Iraq arose to bedevil him.

"Why did you vote for the war?" demanded attorney Kjas Long, 52, who said he backed Gephardt in 1988.

The candidate explained that, after studying the issue, he became convinced that Iraq was a present or future danger. "I will always do what I think is right, regardless of the politics," he said.

"It was a better answer than I expected," Long conceded. "But I'm not persuaded." He said he probably would vote for Dean on Monday.

Afterward, Gephardt left Iowa, part of a strategy to ensure that, if he wins here, he can build on it Jan. 27 in New Hampshire; Feb. 3 in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Missouri and North Dakota; and Feb. 7 in Washington and Michigan.

But it isn't likely to matter if he loses Monday. Long, the former Gephardt backer, probably was right when he said, "He has to win here, or he's history."

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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