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Published: Saturday, 2/7/2004

Gephardt throws support behind front-runner Kerry

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

WARREN, Mich. - Front-running presidential candidate John Kerry received the endorsement of former rival Dick Gephardt yesterday, just as voters here and in Washington state prepared to cast votes today in elections to choose their party s nominee.

Rep. Gephardt (D., Mo.), a former House majority leader who dropped out of the race after finishing poorly in the Iowa caucuses last month, came to the heart of the American automobile industry to throw his support behind Mr. Kerry, a signal that Mr. Gephardt s substantial political support from organized labor now may be a target of the Kerry campaign.

“To beat George Bush, we need a leader who can go toe-to-toe with George Bush in these difficult and dangerous times,” Mr. Gephardt told 300 people at a catering hall on Ten Mile Road here yesterday morning. “We need a leader who we all know could walk into that Oval Office tomorrow afternoon and be a great president of the United States.

“That leader is John Kerry, and I am proud to endorse him,” Mr. Gephardt said.

“Over the course of this campaign, I found that we shared common goals for the American people. We want to create better jobs, and better-paying jobs, and we want to stop the export of jobs from the United States all over the world,” the congressman said.

Mr. Kerry is among those competing for the 128 pledged delegates at stake here, the biggest individual prize so far in the election season. Washington state offers 76 pledged delegates today.

Pollster John Zogby said Mr. Kerry s Michigan lead is prohibitive.

“I wouldn t be surprised if it were at least a 25-point blowout for Kerry,” Mr. Zogby said.

Against a backdrop of dozens of union firefighters, teachers, and tradesmen, Mr. Kerry promised to keep the Missouri congressman busy.

“I am grateful for him being here today, and I am grateful for his support,” he said, turning to face Mr. Gephardt. “Dick, you may think that you and Jane have earned yourself a vacation, but we have a lot of work for you to do.”

Mr. Kerry had built a strong lead in the polls here before the Gephardt endorsement, so much so that most of the remaining candidates have concentrated on campaigning in other states. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who once said he believed he had a good chance to win Michigan, canceled a campaign stop in Ann Arbor to focus instead on Wisconsin, a state he said this week he must win on Feb. 17.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have spent their time in Tennessee and Virginia, which hold elections on Tuesday.

Dennis Kucinich made several campaign stops in Michigan yesterday and has vowed to continue campaigning to the convention this summer, even though he has enjoyed little success at the polls.

Mr. Gephardt s announcement here was made as Mr. Kerry builds momentum in the race for the Democratic nomination. He has won seven of the nine primaries and caucuses. Nearly every leading Democrat in the state was among Mr. Kerry s endorsers, including U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and Congressmen Sander Levin and John Dingell.

Former Sens. Don Riegle of Michigan and Max Cleland of Georgia also appeared on his behalf yesterday.

They are a signal, Mr. Kerry said, that establishment Democrats are united behind his campaign. His speech here indicated as much. He spent little time talking about the Michigan caucuses today, instead focusing on what he said is the need to defeat President Bush in November.

“I m sorry about the news. Eleven thousand more manufacturing jobs lost last month under this President. He has lost over 170,000 or so manufacturing jobs over the course of the last few years. We have lost just shy of three million jobs nationally,” he said. “It s clear to me that in Michigan and across this country, we re not going to put people back into manufacturing jobs until we put George Bush out of his job.”

“I m here to make a prediction. Like father, like son. One term, and you re done,” he said.

The voting in the caucuses here has been going on for weeks now. The state Democratic Party, which is running these caucuses, has been the first in the country this election cycle to institute voting using an Internet site. Others have voted by mail. There are a reduced number of polling places open today as a result, causing some to have to drive much longer distances than normal to cast their ballot.



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