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Dick Gephardt is talking food, discussing the Indian dishes he whips up on the rare occasions he gets to cook. The spicier the better, he says, even if his wife, Jane, can't handle the really hot stuff.
And flowers, Gephardt says. He loves to grow flowers: "I get a big kick out of planting a seed or small plant and watching it develop, trying to nurture it and get it to develop into a beautiful flower or vegetable."
The Missouri congressman is far from his planter boxes and untended pots and pans. Still, he seems at home as he sits in a dirt-streaked purple minivan, shuttling across western Iowa from one Democratic gathering to another, musing over curry and crocuses.
Gephardt, 62, is running for president for the second time. And even though he has just left a confrontational crowd that badgered him for backing President Bush's war policy toward Iraq, his serenity suggests a man who has done and seen it all before.
His problem is that a lot of Democrats view Gephardt with the same been-there, done-that sentiment. "A tremendous leader of our party," said Tom Whitmore, a retired school administrator in Sioux City. "But we need new leadership."
It is a common refrain among Democrats and perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between the candidate and his party's 2004 presidential nomination. Gephardt acknowledges as much with characteristic calm, displaying the same let-us-reason-together unflappability that assured and annoyed his charges during nearly eight years as Democratic House leader. He understands the attraction of "newness," Gephardt says, but thinks he has something more compelling to offer voters in this anxious age: experience.
"I think especially in a time of all these challenges coming at us they want someone who has steady hands and who's seen all this stuff and performed at the highest level of the government," Gephardt says, as the gently sloping Iowa countryside rushes past his passenger-side window. "That's what I have to bring to this, that's what I am. I'm running as who I am, and that's what I think people should want."
After 25 years in Washington, Gephardt is a vague and familiar figure to most Americans. He ran for president in 1988 as the scourge of Japanese imports, making him the favorite of organized labor. In January 1995, he surrendered the gavel to Newt Gingrich to end 40 years of Democratic rule in the House -- "one of the worst days of my life," he said.
Throughout the Clinton years he kept up a cordial if often strained relationship with the White House. (Gephardt and then-Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee were rivals in 1988 and tensions between them still linger.)
On his second try Gephardt is a far more sure-footed candidate than he was 15 years ago -- but one still capable of surprises.
He is not one of Washington's more celebrated orators. Yet he brought a skeptical crowd of 400 Democratic insiders to their feet with a passionate speech on party values last winter that was all the more impressive because he winged it; just before stepping through the curtain Gephardt learned the TelePrompTer was broken and his text had disappeared.
A product of Capitol Hill, where progress tends to be measured in inches, Gephardt has offered the most ambitious and expansive platform of any Democrat seeking the White House, saying he would finance it by repealing Bush's hard-won tax cuts. Among the major initiatives are plans to establish a federal teachers corps, launch a crash program to reduce America's oil dependency and promote an international minimum wage.
Bolder still, he talks of ending the nation's 50-50 political paralysis and forging a new governing majority by unifying Democrats, independents and even some Republicans around proposals such as his far-reaching plan to provide health care for every working American -- not through a government program but tax incentives given to their employers.
"I can pass this bill. I can get business for it. I can get labor for it. I can get the health-care community for it," Gephardt tells an audience in Des Moines, although the $2-trillion plan is already under siege from critics who call it too big and too expensive.
First, Gephardt has to win the Democratic nomination, and that means stepping up his lackluster fund-raising and wooing holdouts within his own party, including many of his old friends in organized labor. "It's safe to say that Dick is labor's fair-haired son," said Bridgette Williams, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. "But I wouldn't take for granted [labor's] endorsement."
Gerald McEntee, head of the Political Education Committee of the national AFL-CIO, agreed. "The main thing we're looking for this year is someone who can win," said McEntee, who vowed not to let his personal affection for Gephardt influence labor's hard-nosed endorsement decisions. "So the question is, what is Dick's electability?"
That could well be decided in Iowa, which holds the first vote of the 2004 contest in seven months.( Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 after practically taking up residence. He spent nearly 150 days campaigning across the state and even moved his mother to Des Moines to oversee her care. (Loreen Gephardt died last month at age 95; to the end, her son the congressmen tended a patch of begonias at her assisted-living home in St. Louis.)
The hope was that an Iowa victory would launch Gephardt's candidacy in the same way it catapulted Jimmy Carter to the nomination in 1976. That was a serious miscalculation, Gephardt now concedes. He managed to win just two other states, South Dakota and his native Missouri, before running out of money and quitting the contest just a few weeks after Iowa briefly made him the front-runner.
This time, Gephardt is campaigning hard all over the country, building on contacts he made in the first campaign and subsequently nurtured through years of ceaseless travel as the Democratic House leader. "You've got to do well in a lot of places, consistently," he said, describing a strategy of husbanding his resources, outflanking and outlasting his eight Democratic rivals.
The nominating calendar could work to Gephardt's advantage. Besides his home state, there will be early contests in Michigan and Wisconsin -- states with strong labor movements -- as well as South Carolina, where the black vote is key and Gephardt enjoys considerable support among African American leaders.
Even so, Iowa stands as a critical test, one that likely will make or break his candidacy. "It's like USC playing Drake," said Dennis Goldford, head of the department of political and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines. "You beat them, so what? A victory is discounted. A loss is magnified."
Faced with that reality, Gephardt is working Iowa just as avidly as he did 15 years ago, even as he tries this time to spread himself more evenly among other early-voting states. There is obviously a lingering affection among Iowans; at virtually every stop Gephardt is greeted by past supporters, some wearing caps, T-shirts or other paraphernalia salvaged from 1988. Together, they warmly recall earlier visits, like old friends sharing a collection of favorite snapshots.
Thirty years into the business, Gephardt campaigns with the ease of a seasoned pro. He chuckles at the same joke he has told 100 times, even when nobody else does. A speech to a packed living-room audience grows a bit more intimate as he scans the crowd, repeatedly looking each person in the eye. Speaking to seniors at Onawa's sparkling new recreation center, Gephardt brings up the Medicare rules that penalize Iowa doctors -- a major sore point in the state -- before anyone even thinks to ask.
Zoe Leonard, for one, walks away impressed. The 78-year-old home health-care aide has given "a lot of thought" to the notion of injecting some fresh blood into the Democratic Party by putting a newcomer, such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, atop the ticket. "That would add a lot of zing," she said.
But after hearing Gephardt hold forth at a Sunday potluck in Harlan, she reconsiders. "With the world situation as it is, a member of Congress has more background than a governor," said Leonard, who uses words such as "knowledgeable" and "reassuring" to describe the Missouri Democrat.
He may also be the hardest-working man in all of national politics, says Joe Trippi, who speaks from firsthand knowledge.
"Dick Gephardt will out-phone-call, out-knock-on-door and out-hold-coffees more than any person I've ever seen run for president," said Trippi, deputy manager of Gephardt's 1988 campaign and now a top Dean strategist. "If you see him in your rearview mirror, keep an eye on the mirror."
About This Series
This is the third installment in a weekly series profiling the candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. For the Q&A, the candidates are responding in writing to an identical set of questions, and their responses have been edited for space.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Richard Andrew Gephardt
Born: Jan. 31, 1941, St. Louis.
Parents: Lou Gephardt, milk truck driver, and Loreen Gephardt, secretary (both deceased).
Education: Northwestern University, B.S., 1962; University of Michigan Law School, J.D., 1965.
(married in 1966).
Children: Matt, 32; Chrissy 30; and Kate, 26.
Residences: St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
Current job: Member of Congress, 3rd District of Missouri.
Previous jobs: St. Louis city alderman, 1971-75; attorney, 1965-1971.
Military service: Air National Guard, 1965-1971.
Source: Los Angeles Times