Fifteen years after his first presidential bid, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) on Saturday started a new quest for the White House with a brief but vociferous blast at President Bush's domestic and foreign policies.
"On nearly every issue of importance to the country -- national security, the economy, health care, education, energy policy -- President Bush is leading the country either down the wrong path or not leading at all," Gephardt said in a three-paragraph statement announcing his formation of a presidential exploratory committee. "Too many unmet promises and too much empty rhetoric have left us a nation unsure of our own economic security and still vulnerable to threats we faced over a year ago on Sept. 11."
The announcement by Gephardt, who ran for president in 1988 and served as Democratic leader in the House of Representatives for most of the last eight years, was essentially a pro forma step. He pushed forward the declaration of his candidacy after word leaked of a kickoff fund-raiser scheduled for Jan. 22. Like the other Democratic hopefuls, Gephardt plans a more elaborate announcement in the next few months.
Like the others, he is eager to start raising the $15 million to $20 million it is expected to take to seriously compete next year for the party's nomination.
The crowd of contestants hoping to challenge Bush in 2004 has swelled over the last few days as candidates rush to take advantage of the fund-raising rules that took effect Jan. 1. As of New Year's Day, the federal government will match contributions to qualifying presidential candidates dollar for dollar, up to $250 per donation. That could amount to a government subsidy of millions of dollars for the most successful candidates.
Gephardt became the fourth Democratic contender to effectively launch his candidacy by establishing an exploratory committee. The others are outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut will announce his candidacy by the end of the month, advisors said, and the Rev. Al Sharpton plans to file papers creating an exploratory committee Jan. 21.
With his entry in the race, Gephardt rekindled a torch he has carried for more than a decade.
Although his focus has been trying to win back Democratic control of the House -- the quest took him to more than 200 campaign events last year alone -- "he's always wanted to run again and clearly wants to be president," said one longtime Gephardt associate. "I don't think he ever put the fire out."
The 61-year-old Gephardt began his 30-year political career on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. He was elected to the House in 1976 and is serving his 14th term, representing part of St. Louis and its suburbs to the south. He stepped aside as House minority leader in November but plans to keep his congressional seat even as he seeks the White House.
Throughout his political career, Gephardt has been a fairly reliable partisan, but not always. He voted for President Reagan's 1981 tax cut and opposed legalized abortion until switching his position in 1986. More recently, he opposed trade agreements pushed by President Clinton and last fall parted company with many of his fellow Democrats by working with Bush on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
Despite that cooperation, Gephardt was hardly stinting in his criticism Saturday of Bush's first two years in office.
"I look forward to challenging President Bush and offering a distinctive choice and a different direction for our economic and national security policies," said Gephardt, who has opposed efforts to make permanent the administration's 10-year tax cut.
Gephardt met with middling success the last time he ran for president. Stumping on a populist, anti-establishment platform with "fair trade" as its centerpiece, Gephardt won the leadoff Iowa caucuses, finished second in the New Hampshire primary and carried South Dakota. But his candidacy soon fizzled -- opponents attacked him as a flip-flopper, among other charges -- and he folded his campaign after winning only one other primary, in his home state of Missouri.
This time, Gephardt starts with a broad national fund-raising base, strong ties to organized labor -- an important Democratic Party constituency -- and some residual support in Iowa, which again will start the nominating process about a year from now. But his advantage heading into the caucuses is far from overwhelming, said Gordon Fischer, the new head of the Iowa Democratic Party.
"Our records indicate about a third of Gephardt's  supporters are still active. That's a nice base to start from, but the race here is wide open," Fischer said.