The distress signals were everywhere. At 7:50 pm, Gephardt canceled his interview on Larry King Live, ten minutes before show time. He was a no-show at the hotel well after his scheduled arrival time, and Gephardt's campaign manager Steve Murphy was stonefaced as he paced back and forth on his cell phone. He told a couple of reporters that early turnout numbers appeared high - and he said earlier that "all bets were off" if turnout went beyond their expectations of 120,000. And they did....way beyond.
Rumors had been swirling for days that if Gephardt were to lose Iowa and drop out of the race, he would likely go to his hometown to make an official announcement. The defining moment came when a reporter asked whether plans to fly to New Hampshire and South Carolina for Tuesday's events were still set. "Are we still taking the charter to New Hampshire?" asked a reporter. "I don't know" was the answer Gephardt's press secretary gave. I don't know? That was telling. Less than an hour later, campaign press secretary Erik Smith announced that we would be traveling to St. Louis shortly after Gephardt made a statement. It was over.
According to campaign staffers, the mood behind the scenes was surprisingly easy. Early in the evening, Gephardt knew the end was near and there was not much discussion among staffers. One senior campaign staffer expressed thanks for the decision to cut the cord right away rather than die a slow death. In the ballroom, supporters and friends gathered - and the tears were flowing. Gephardt, too, teared up while delivering a heartfelt speech in which he spoke of his son's struggle with cancer. "I've been through tougher fights in my life. When I watched my 2-year-old son fight terminal cancer and win." After the speech, an easy-going Gephardt made his way around the room hugging supporters and staffers, some who were inconsolable.
Campaign staffers and journalists who have spent day in and day out riding buses and eating bad food together, said their good byes. It was like the end of summer camp. Even when the Kerry and Edwards freight trains began rattling the nerves of senior Gephardt staff members, they remained confident -- but only on the outside. Until the end, Gephardt publicly projected his win while, all the while, the end was near. The campaign knew their hard count numbers had dropped. They knew that Edwards' viability issues had diminished. They knew that Kerry's ground force was underestimated. They knew that Dean was hemorrhaging supporters, but Gephardt was not picking them up.
Still, they held out hope that their second choice strategy would keep them alive. Steve Murphy admitted on the charter plane to St. Louis that Gephardt's plan was a bit far-reaching. The plan to rely on the unviable Edwards imploded. Murphy joked that Gephardt's support base has always been at about 20%, since the Reagan administration. And, there was little hope of getting it up, so plan "B" was all they had.