Gephardt Could Win. Really

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If you believe the collective wisdom of some of America's most sagacious political reporters and columnists, Dick Gephardt shouldn't have bothered announcing his presidential candidacy this morning. He should, instead, have stepped up to the podium in his St. Louis elementary school, bowed his head in shame and conceded he didn't have a chance. He should have admitted that his 27 years in Congress have burdened him with too many votes on too many sides of too many issues. He should have acknowledged that his failure, as the Democratic leader, to win back control of the House in the past four election cycles had earned him a loser's reputation he cannot shake. He should have explained that his victory in the 1988 Iowa caucuses had forced him into a hopeless expectations game for Iowa in 2004, in which a win would be discounted and a loss would be fatal. He should have said, "Look, I'm boring, I'm a has-been and the press is sick of me." He should have thanked his audience and gone back to Washington, quit the Congress and joined a lobbying firm.

But he didn't, and for good reason. Gephardt has as good a shot as any of the declared and undeclared Democrats of winning his party's nomination. He instantly joins the top tier of candidates currently occupied by Senators John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman. And he is capable of beating all three.

Let's start with the most prevalent argument against Gephardt's chances: his reportedly tepid support in Iowa. Because he won Iowa in 1988, because he hails from neighboring Missouri, because labor is strong in Iowa and he is a labor favorite, Gephardt must win the caucuses next January if he has any chance of becoming the Democratic nominee. Reporting out of Iowa, especially articles by Dan Balz of the Washington Post and David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, has shown that Gephardt's support there among Democratic activists is far from overwhelming. It's been 16 years since his caucus victory; the electorate has changed, and even those Democrats who remember and voted for Gephardt in 1988 are, understandably, open to alternatives. But Gephardt remains a strong favorite to win there again in 2004. His left-of-center, populist economic message fits the politics of Hawkeye State Democrats well. And it's hard to imagine a senator from Massachusetts or Connecticut capturing the imaginations of Iowans. (Lieberman is showing signs that he may skip the caucuses entirely). That leaves Edwards as Gephardt's biggest worry. With his grass roots labor support and his appeal as a mid-westerner, Gephardt has the advantage.

Which brings us to New Hampshire, where Gephardt's dream died in 1988. After his Iowa victory, Gephardt's opponents took turns pummeling him. Al Gore in particular used ads and debates to eviscerate Gephardt as a phony who had switched his position on a host of key issues, including abortion. Gore's attacks mostly helped Mike Dukakis. After New Hampshire, Gephardt was finished, Gore's southern strategy failed and Dukakis went on to win the nomination.

But New Hampshire should be different for Gephardt this time around. Like Dukakis, John Kerry's Boston home address will earn him near-favorite son status in New Hampshire. Expectations of a Kerry victory there will be high. But unlike in 1988, two other candidates could cut into Kerry's regional appeal next year: Connecticut's Lieberman and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dean has won the hearts of many Democratic activists by positioning himself as the most anti-war candidate in the field. And though Dean will be under-funded, success in New Hampshire has never depended solely on money. If Dean siphons enough votes from Kerry, Gephardt could build on an Iowa victory with a solid showing in New Hampshire. In a crowded field, he could even win.

What about Gephardt's "Bob Dole problem" — the idea that he's been around too long and spent too many years forging compromises in Congress to be a viable presidential candidate? It's a problem, to be sure. Gephardt's Congressional record presents his opponents with a treasure trove of potential controversies, flip-flops and statements he probably wishes he could take back. But Gephardt doesn't look "old", the way Dole did. And he's earnest (sometimes excruciatingly so), where Dole often seemed cynical. Moreover, having Washington experience shouldn't be, post-9/11, the albatross that it was for Dole in '96 or Gore in 2000. It should even be an asset. Before 9/11, John Edwards was hot largely because he was a fresh face. Ever since, he's been struggling to overcome the perception that he's too green for such a weighty job. Wisely, Gephardt isn't trying to run as something he's not. "I'm not going to say what's fashionable in our politics — that I'm a Washington outsider, that I couldn't find the nation's capital on a map, that I have no experience in the highest levels of government," Gephardt said in his announcement. "I do, and I think experience matters." He even opened his speech by talking about the 1993 Clinton budget he helped pass without a single Republican vote.

Which brings us to the two keys to any candidate's success: money and message. After years raising cash for House candidates, Gephardt has the best fundraising list of any Democrat in the race. And he's got more labor support than any other candidate. That said, he might still have trouble. The pool of available money is limited, especially with so many supplicants out there. And Gephardt has to combat the notion that he's yesterday's man. His campaign advisers think he'll need — and can raise — $20 million this year, of which he hopes to conserve $15 million for the sprint of primary contests that begins in January with Iowa and could end by late February. Unlike Kerry and Edwards, Gephardt has no personal fortune to pilfer if he's desperate. He'll either raise enough money to compete or be forced to bow out early.

But Gephardt does have a message advantage. For any Democrat to have a chance against George W. Bush, the economy will have to be the dominant issue in the campaign. And Gephardt, more than the rest of the Democratic field, has a message designed to capitalize on (you might say "exploit") whatever economic discontent there is out there come primary and general election time. Having sided with Bush on Iraq, Gephardt is counting on the economy — rather than war or terrorism — to carry him to the nomination and beyond. He started today by slamming Bush's "tax cuts for the wealthy", proposing that the money should be used instead for expanding health care coverage. Depending on the state of the economy next year, it's a message that could resonate — certainly in the Democratic primaries, and maybe even in the general election.

Finally, there's the charisma question. With his monotonous mid-western drone and Boy Scout looks, Gephardt isn't likely to wow a room with his rhetoric or captivate an audience with his aura. He is serious, and can be seriously dull. But as anyone who remembers his passionate floor speech during the debate over President Clinton's impeachment can tell you, Gephardt is capable of rising to the occasion. That speech — "We need to stop destroying imperfect people on the altar of an unobtainable morality" — was the best of Gephardt's career. It even earned a spot in a collection of famous speeches that includes such high-caliber orators as Churchill, Kennedy, Reagan and King. There are no entries under Kerry, Edwards or Lieberman.

Late last year, a top adviser to President Bush predicted to me that Gephardt would win the Democratic nomination. At the time, I thought I was being spun. I figured Gephardt was the opponent Bush wanted, not the one he feared. That may still be true. But I also know that if Gephardt wins the nomination, the same Bush adviser will be on the phone bragging how he predicted it more than a year in advance.

In the end, Gephardt may fizzle. He may fail to raise enough money, or enough interest. He may allow himself to be over-handled by consultants — a mistake he made in 1988 and is prone to making again. But it is more likely that, come next January, Gephardt will be one of just two or three Democrats with a real shot at the nomination.