Dick Gephardt Wants to Win Back the House

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Running: Gephardt urges Dems to capitalize on economic ills

When control of Congress is at stake, a politician can't afford to miss even the smallest opportunity to gin up votes. That's why Dick Gephardt, the Democratic minority leader of the House of Representatives, found himself having coffee one morning last week with nine party activists at Mr. C's Family Restaurant in Knoxville, a speck of an Iowa town that boasts the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum. With embattled Congressman Leonard Boswell at his elbow, Gephardt implored the faithful to pour on the energy: "Iowa literally has the ability to tell us who will control the House." But a man eating breakfast nearby was thinking about the campaign after that. As Gephardt strode out, the Rev. Peter Peterson of Knoxville's United Methodist Church offered his Bible and asked Gephardt to sign it, predicting, "You're the next President of the U.S."

Gephardt said what he always says—all he's thinking about now is winning back the House—and hopped into a minivan for another 14-hour day of stumping for his Democrats, who need just six more seats to take the majority. He has raised more than $20 million for this election, doing 92 fund raisers so far this year. Some nights he sits at party headquarters until 11 p.m. dialing for West Coast dollars. He even cajoled Barbra Streisand out of retirement for a star-filled $500-a-ticket concert next month, to bring zing—and as much as $4 million—to the party's quest for the House.

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Three months ago, taking back the House seemed close to impossible. Only a handful of races—maybe 40 at most—were thought to be in play, so gaining six seats was a formidable task. Once-a-decade redistricting had helped the G.O.P. a bit. And Republicans believed that George Bush's sky-high approval rating gave them a powerful talisman against the off-year election jinx that often hits the President's party.

But as WorldCom piled on Enron and Tyco and Adelphia, as Martha fell alongside Kenny Boy, as the airlines talked bankruptcy and the baseball union talked strike, the mood of the nation soured. For the first time since Sept. 11, many national polls show that most voters think the country is going in the wrong direction.

That's bad news for the party in power, which is why President Bush last week invited 240 people who agree with his economic policies to praise them at a forum in Waco, Texas. He talked of corrupt CEOs in terms he once reserved for Osama bin Laden, but offered little more than assurances that "we're the greatest nation on the face of the earth." The markets—which matter more than ever in politics now that nearly half of all U.S. households hold investments—were paying more attention to the downbeat noises coming out of the Federal Reserve.

Will Americans take their anger into the voting booth this fall? There are few signs yet in the polls: Bush's job approval remains well within the healthy range, and voter preferences in congressional contests have barely budged. Says Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report: "We're not seeing any race change."

Gephardt intends to make that happen one race at a time, if that's what it takes. As miles of soybean and cornfields slid past his window last week, he pored over talking points, memorizing which candidates wanted him to stress corporate responsibility, which wanted him to hammer their opponents on Medicare. In spare moments he coached others by cell phone: "You need to tell what happened in the House—the drug companies wrote the bill, and they wouldn't even let us bring up our alternative. It's a total capitulation to special interests! Keep going."

Democrats say economic anxiety will attract voters to their party on a host of issues, from health care to the environment. But they know from experience that none packs a wallop like Social Security. It could be their nuclear weapon in a year when Americans have seen their 401(k)s vaporize. So at each stop in Iowa, a state with plenty of seniors and perhaps the greatest concentration of hot congressional races, Gephardt lambasted Bush's plan to allow people to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the market. "Over my dead body will they be able to do it!" he roared.

But Republicans have managed to blur the differences on many other issues, from education to prescription drugs. So the Democrats, observes political consultant Rachel Gorlin, have "got to put something on the table." Gephardt agrees. His top aides began strategizing on a splashy list of bold policy promises last week, something like the brash Contract with America, which Newt Gingrich and the Republican candidates rode to victory in 1994. But many Democrats, particularly in rural districts where so many of the swing races are being fought, are resisting anything that ties them too closely to a national party that veers left of where most of their voters live. Some, like Iowa Democratic challenger Julie Thomas, say they will do better on local concerns, like Medicare reimbursement formulas that short-change her state.

Across the Capitol, majority leader Tom Daschle's forces are worried that big new promises would raise an uncomfortable question as they struggle to maintain their one-vote hold on the chamber: If these are such great ideas, why hasn't the Democratic Senate passed them? An in-your-face assault on Bush's economic policies would reopen one issue that national Democratic leaders have been eager to avoid: Would Democrats cancel the remaining installments of his tax cut?

Even if the Democrats get the message right, they remain far behind the Republicans in raising the money to get it out. Gephardt urges his candidates to hold back spending on television commercials until the end, an idea he took from Gingrich's '94 playbook. The key to Democratic victories will be turnout, he says. In Iowa the party has invested millions in computer software so workers can ply towns and neighborhoods each evening, PalmPilot in hand, hunting down Democratic voters, especially any who want absentee ballots, ensuring that they have returned them, even offering to deliver the ballots to polling places. In the post-campaign-finance-reform world, "this is the future of the Democratic Party," Gephardt says.

Doggedness has kept Gephardt in the game, but it has not been enough to put him on top of his division. Democratic leader since 1994, he has regained seats in each election since but always came up short of a majority. Whatever presidential dreams Gephardt harbors for 2004, if he doesn't produce a Democratic House majority this November, "he starts looking like a loser," says an operative in the camp of a rival Democratic presidential candidate.

If Gephardt wins, it's very much in question whether he would take the job of Speaker or leave to start a 2004 presidential campaign. Those around him are convinced he would hit the trail. He may be an old face to party insiders, but he has to reintroduce himself to average voters. A woman at an Iowa Dairy Cream saw Gephardt getting an ice cream on Thursday and asked him if he was Senator Daschle. Not long ago, he says, laughing, two women at an airport begged him to settle a $5 bet: Was he Dan Quayle or the guy who does the weather on CNN?

Fourteen years after his first, failed presidential bid, Gephardt, 61, looks remarkably like the brash young candidate he was then. His hair may be thinner, his jaw a bit thicker, but he still looks perpetually fresh—especially for a candidate many are ready to write off as shopworn. But he's been ignored in the buzz over new Democratic faces like Senators John Edwards and John Kerry. Like Bob Dole before him, Gephardt is finding it is hard to shape a bold presidential vision when his day job keeps him immersed in legislative minutiae. His passion doesn't come across on TV, nor does the realness of an ordinary guy who watches the Food Network and fights a losing battle with the withering petunias on his town-house balcony.

But if Al Gore stumbles—or gets pushed—Gephardt has nurtured the organization, alliances and funding it takes to vault to the front of the pack. All three will matter more than ever in a front-loaded primary calendar that means candidates have to make a national impact even before the Iowa caucuses. No one, not even Gore, is closer to labor, thanks to the many battles Gephardt has fought for unions over trade issues. And the more the Dow sinks, the more broadly appealing his brand of feisty populism sounds.

As he stumped across Iowa last week, a few people dug out their Gephardt yard signs from 1988. "I don't think the Democrats would find a better candidate," said Herb Goettsch, who came to a fund raiser in Bettendorf wearing a 14-year-old boater that Gephardt autographed the last time they met. But first, the House has to be won. The hardest-working man in politics has to take it one November at a time.