Gephardt Faces Challenges, Chances in Iowa

"Why would we want to credential someone else, when we already got someone we like?" asked Gifford, who is close to the candidate. "Gephardt's been our friend. He's not a new friend."

Though it's hard to tell precisely, exit polls and anecdotal evidence showed that many of Gephardt's 1988 caucus supporters were farmers, longtime labor activists, retirees, machinists, ironworkers, welders, and steel fabricators. Indeed, part of the reason why Gephardt lost in other parts of the country is because his message was uniquely tailored to states like Iowa and Michigan, while falling flat in New Hampshire, where the trade deficit was of little consequence and unemployment was virtually naught. He also ran out of money.

The New Gephardt

The new Gephardt, introduced with a flourish in his St. Louis hometown last week, will balance his past with his present and try not take anything or any group — especially unions — for granted.

Yet there is what one Iowa Democrat called the "staleness factor." It's not that Gephardt himself is old news; it's that many caucus goers will be new to the process. In 2000, according to calculations by political scientist Michael Levy, 46 percent of caucus-goers were new. Many Iowa political experts believe that figure will be matched, if not exceeded in 2004.

On Thursday, Gephardt talked plenty about trade, but he also promised to slash "the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy" and use the money to "finish the unfinished business of providing high-quality health coverage to everyone who works in America, saving billions, and stimulating one of the biggest sectors of our private economy. To me, this is a moral imperative."

Though Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, he received only 31 percent of the projected delegate pool. That's 31 percent of the 110,000-odd Democrats who turned out. Most Democrats who voted in 1988 chose other candidates.

The Labor Department estimates that about 173,000 Iowans belong to labor unions. Iowa Federation of Labor President Mark Smith said he expects more than 60,000 of them to attend the caucuses. Many of them will be new to the process.

The Gephardt of 2002 isn't as purely pro-labor as the Gephardt of 1988 either.

Populist Democrats hoped that Gephardt would lead the fight against permanent trade ties to China. He didn't, though he voted against the legislation. And in 1997, his advocacy of an expanded H-1B visa program for foreign technology workers gave him a temporary credential as a technocratic centrist but angered his labor allies.

A prominent state Democrat who was one of Gephardt's top field activists in 1988 said that activists who have no personal connection to the Missouri congressman politely acknowledge Gephardt's general fidelity to their issues but look elsewhere.

"He's not as fresh as we was in 1988. And the bulk of the Democratic folks are not real quick to grasp somebody who wasn't successful," the Democrat said. "We're not quick to vote for someone who failed once before."

Someone crisp like Kucinich, the anti-war Democrat from Ohio, might attract them, if only temporarily.

A top Iowa labor leader who has supported Gephardt in the past but who remains undecided today said Kucinich reminds many of Paul Wellstone, the populist Minnesota senator who died in a plane crash while running for re-election last year. "We believed in Paul Wellstone. You're not going to argue for someone you don't believe can win," the labor leader said.

Which may be the ultimate reason why labor leaders are unusually reticent, unusually early.

"Labor, more than any other Democratic interest group, is very pragmatic," said Jeff Smith, who was Bill Bradley's Iowa political director in 2000. "The union leadership in Washington is going to be split enough that there's not going to be any clear signal to the people in Iowa."

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