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Tough Trade Stance Sharpens Contrast With Hart : House Vote Gives Gephardt Presidential Issue

Times Staff Writer

For hard-driving Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, House approval Wednesday of his controversial amendment toughening U.S. trade policy means attainment of a legislative goal that the Missouri Democrat has been striving toward for months.

Even more important for White House aspirant Gephardt, the House action moved him a significant rung up the ladder in his climb toward a more difficult objective--capturing his party’s 1988 nomination.

By thrusting himself to the forefront of the national debate on trade, into a head-to-head policy confrontation with President Reagan, the 46-year-old Gephardt has gained the sort of prominence that most dark horse candidates like himself usually only dream about. And this attention for the boyish, red-haired congressman is likely to be more than a fleeting impression, because the trade issue is a persisting problem that directly touches voters’ pocketbooks and thus their hearts and minds.

‘Distanced From the Field’

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“In terms of public sentiment, Congress has been about 10 points behind the curve on this issue,” said Democratic Rep. Dave R. Nagle of Iowa, where the Democratic delegate selection process begins next February. By prodding the lawmakers into adopting his plan for sanctions against countries running big trade surpluses against the United States, Nagle said, Gephardt has “distanced himself from the field” of little-known Democrats chasing front-runner Gary Hart.

The issue also serves to sharpen the contrast between Gephardt and Hart, who differs with Gephardt on trade, opposing the sort of stringent sanctions against trading partners embodied in the Gephardt amendment.

Gephardt’s strategists see this difference as an opportunity to draw Hart into a debate that would exclude the other contenders from the spotlight, and give Gephardt a chance to put Hart on the defensive.

In the wake of the House vote, many analysts believe that voters and political activists will look at Gephardt’s candidacy more closely and more seriously.

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Cautious About Impact

Gephardt himself is cautious about assessing the political impact of his role in the trade debate. “It’s a mixed bag,” he said in an interview before the decisive vote. “There are a lot of people who are for what I’m doing, and a lot of people against it.”

Even before the vote, Gephardt had come in for heavy criticism from editorial writers, economists and some leaders of the business community, who accuse him of fostering protectionism and threatening the outbreak of a disastrous trade war. “It’s no fun being beat up on by the entire journalistic, intellectual and corporate establishment,” said Gephardt’s campaign manger, Bill Carrick.

But whatever the merits of Gephardt’s proposal, the political numbers seem to be on his side.

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Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is not affiliated with any 1988 contender, said that voters interviewed favor a tougher U.S. trade policy by a 60% to 30% margin, even when they are told that such measures might bring retaliation.

“An overwhelming majority of people are in favor of limiting imports, almost without regard for the consequences,” Mellman said.

Accused of Opportunism

Because of the potential political rewards from his trade stand, Gephardt has been accused of opportunistically exploiting the issue to advance his candidacy. In response, his aides contend that his involvement with the trade issue is a natural result of his position on the House Ways and Means Committee and his concern with the health of the national economy.

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“I haven’t done it for political reasons or because it enhances my candidacy,” Gephardt said of his battle for the trade amendment. “I do believe that good policy is good politics.”

Gephardt recalled that former Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), his mentor in the House when he arrived there in 1976, told him that “if you just pursued the right policy, politics would take care of itself. And I believe that.”

Indeed, so far at least, the politics of trade does seem to be taking care of itself--and of Gephardt. His stand on the issue has won him active backing from leaders of the United Auto Workers in Iowa, where that union is a potent factor in the Democratic caucuses. And it has impressed political operatives in many other unions.

‘Definitely on the Rise’

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“He’s certainly got his message down pat,” said Joan Baggett, political director of the Bricklayers Union. “He’s definitely on the rise.”

Gephardt’s rivals speak of his use of the trade issue with envy, mixed with predictions of doom.

“Sure, this gives him high visibility for now,” said an aide to Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. “But he’s running a big risk with this in the long run. How can he go South with this issue?” Some Southerners, however, contend that opinion in their region, known as a stronghold of free trade, has changed as a result of the huge U.S. trade deficit.

“I think the Gephardt amendment will play pretty well down here,” said Chris Scott, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. “In this state, protectionism means helping our textile industry. In Alabama it means helping steel. And in general, protectionism on trade sort of fits right in with the way Southerners feel about the flag and patriotism.”

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Analysts Deliver Warning

Some analysts contend that Gephardt’s emphasis on the trade issue might hurt him by making him seem to be sort of a political johnny-one-note.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Carter White House aide and Gephardt friend, recalled California Sen. Alan Cranston’s stress on arms control in his 1984 Democratic presidential bid and warned that Gephardt “could become the Alan Cranston of 1988" by linking himself too closely to one issue.

But Gephardt appears to be well positioned to avoid that problem. Approval of his amendment by the House helps reinforce one of the basic tenets of his candidacy--that his experience in the House in getting key legislation passed demonstrates his fitness to lead the nation as President.

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“There is only one thing that counts in Washington--218 votes in the House, and 51 votes in the Senate,” Gephardt told a group of Democratic contributors and fund-raisers in Atlanta last week, ticking off the numbers needed for a majority in each house. Whatever happens to the trade bill in the Senate, the majority his amendment won Wednesday in the House will give Gephardt another piece of evidence to support his claim of leadership skills.

Links Name to Farm Bill

Moreover, though his trade measure has gotten the most attention, it is only one of several proposals to which Gephardt’s name is linked. He is co-sponsor with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin of a farm bill that proposes establishment of production controls, if approved by a farmers’ referendum--an idea bound to win him backing from economically hard-hit farmers in politically strategic Iowa and other states.

And, shortly after Gephardt announced his candidacy last February, he unveiled a plan for cutting the costs of health care and making it more available by increasing competition among health care providers.

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Last week in a 50-minute speech on job creation, Gephardt offered a far-ranging series of initiatives from education and job training to aid to cities that have been hurt by the loss of major industries.

Has Established Trademarks

If all of this sounds like Gephardt’s early campaign planning has touched all the important bases, he is only following a pattern established in 10 years on Capitol Hill, where diligence and self-discipline have been his trademarks.

Indeed, his intensity belies his bland appearance and mild demeanor.

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“He looks like the boy next door, like Ronald Reagan probably looked when he was 46,” said Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento, a Democratic colleague. “But he is a very calculating and goal-oriented guy.”


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