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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Consistent Gephardt keeps trade, working man at front of his race

BY JAMES O TOOLE
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

Today The Blade continues a series of profiles of the nine major candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

GRINNELL, Iowa - After a long day and a lot of words, it s the first false note he s sounded.

Talking up the value of teachers, trying to connect with a lounge full of Grinnell College students, Rep. Dick Gephardt confides, “Let me tell you, there were some days when I was tough to teach.”

Dick Gephardt? A tough student? Try Eagle Scout, dramatics standout, every teacher s dream.

Not a hair out of place, his wife, Jane, beside him -that s right, Dick and Jane - Mr. Gephardt is a candidate from central casting by way of Frank Capra.

Today, like so many days in the last year, and in years past, Mr. Gephardt has been traveling from small town to small town through Iowa, in the hope that this is the road to Washington. On his second run for president, Mr. Gephardt holds the record for days spent in the Hawkeye State.

By Christmas, he had notched 53 campaign days in Iowa. That s nothing compared to the 148 days he spent in 1988, when he rented one apartment in West Des Moines for his family and another for his mother.

Mr. Gephardt turned smarts, discipline, and devotion to the causes of working people into a long and influential career in Congress. He s giving up that career, one way or another, after this term.

His practiced role in House leadership placed a premium on nuance, details, and compromise. But a successful campaigner cannot etch his message in shades of gray. So, in stop after stop, Mr. Gephardt mixes policy with appeals to emotion. The Eagle Scout won t win by helping old ladies across the street. He s got to muster the kind of passion that inspires people to head out to their caucuses on a cold January night.

As he walked into the Central Park Community Center, on the picturesque town square of West Washington, Iowa, on a recent Sunday, he had changed from the business suit he wore for a speech earlier in the day, when he denounced the policies of front-runner Howard Dean. Now in a regular-guy outfit of pressed khakis and a black V-neck sweater, he works his way to the front of a room dominated by members of the local Teamsters Union.

It s a perfect audience for the capsule biography that s part of his standard stump speech. He recalls his father s labors as a milk truck driver, notes that neither his father nor his mother finished high school and that his father bought their house for $4,000 in the first year of World War II, 1941.

“And in 21 years of living there, he never made a principal payment; he paid interest and that was all he could afford,” Mr. Gephardt says. “But I got a great education. I had church scholarships; I had government loans. ... ”

Trade is a centerpiece of Mr. Gephardt s campaign, as it has been of his congressional career. He reminds every audience of his opposition to NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Agreement - and to the extension of permanent trade privileges to China.

“All of these other candidates are now saying that they wouldn t sign a trade agreement without labor and environmental standards,” he notes. “Well, check the record. All of them were for these treaties when they were in front of the Congress. ... I don t just talk the talk, I walk the walk.”

Last year, Mr. Gephardt worked with the Bush administration on legislation authorizing a unilateral effort to oust Saddam Hussein. He appeared with President Bush in the Rose Garden for the announcement of an agreement on the war resolution, a fact that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean repeatedly has reminded Iowans of in a widely aired commercial.

When asked about his stand - as he was four times in one recent campaign day - Mr. Gephardt says, “I did what I thought was right; what is right is to protect the people of this country.”

He tells audiences that before the vote he went to the CIA and was assured by Director George Tenet that the agency believed there was a substantial likelihood that Iraq had weapons that threatened the United States.

Since the capture of Saddam Hussein, however, and Mr. Dean s controversial statement that the event had not made the country safe, Mr. Gephardt has been more aggressive in trying to turn the war issue against the national front-runner rather than concentrating on defending his own position.

Mr. Gephardt s campaign strategy depends on a bounce from a first-place showing in Iowa s caucuses Monday. But as his own experience teaches, an Iowa victory is necessary, but not sufficient for a Gephardt nomination. With Mr. Dean s demonstrated fund-raising ability and his decision to forgo federal matching funds and spending limits, Mr. Gephardt faces a huge financial disadvantage just as he did in 1988.

But Mr. Gephardt is confident. “I am going to win Iowa,” he said recently. “I think I can get a top-tier finish in New Hampshire, then we all face the same challenge ... we have to keep on winning.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O Toole is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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