AMES, IOWA — Dick Gephardt is on a roll. The avowed St. Louis Cardinals fan says nice things about the Chicago Cubs. Crowd cheers. He tells funny stories about people in airports thinking he's Dan Quayle or the weatherman on CNN or an astronaut. "I didn't say anything," grins the Missouri congressman, telling the story of the little boy in Pittsburgh with the autograph book. "I just signed it: Dick Gephardt, astronaut."
Crowd laughs. Who knew Mr. Gephardt, the Eagle Scout former House Democratic leader, was a standup comic? Now he's bought himself half an hour to tell the 80 or so folks at the Heartland Senior Services center in Ames why they should support him for his party's presidential nomination. And why, even though he's the antithesis of the fresh-faced newcomer, he deserves a fresh look.
It may seem an odd choice to tell a string of jokes with a punch line of, essentially, "Everybody recognizes me but nobody knows who I am." After all, of the nine Democrats running, he's been in politics the longest - 32 years, first as an alderman in St. Louis, then as a 14-term congressman, rising to the top of Democratic leadership. He even ran for president once before, in 1988.
But maybe that's his point: He wants us to think he's one of us, not one of "them." That he grew up in humble surroundings, Gephardt repeats over and over, the son of a milkman who had to choose each month which bills to pay. That he worked multiple jobs and took scholarships and loans to pay for college. That he has the Midwestern values that Iowans, host of the first nominating contest, can relate to.
His plain-vanilla image, enhanced by fair hair and features, fits in here, too. In a stump-speech moment of sheer exasperation about Iraq, he appears on the verge of cursing, but veers off: "It's gone to ... chowder!" he bellows.
Still, Gephardt does want us to think he's one of "them" - an experienced Washington hand who knows the corridors of power and who, if elected, would slip easily into the role. In every speech on a swing through central-western Iowa, he reminds voters that after 9/11, as Democratic House leader, he attended weekly meetings with President Bush and offered advice (usually unheeded, he grumbles).
But Gephardt also knows this is not a contest of résumés. Even if he is arguably the most qualified, judging by the length and level of his public service, he knows that so much more goes into voters' decisions. This is also a campaign about anger and passion: Witness the success of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who's made himself the man to beat by playing the outside agitator, getting crowds fired up about Iraq and the economy.
In his stump speech, Gephardt, too, musters indignation: over those lacking health insurance, over the economy, over Bush's "inability to play with others," over the raw sewage running through Mexican factory towns, a byproduct of free trade. But at every stop, he also faces the inevitable voice in the crowd wondering how he could allow (name your outrage) to continue in Washington.
"Why aren't antitrust laws being enforced?" grumbles an old man at a coffee shop in Humboldt, Iowa.
"You're right!" Gephardt agrees.
"That's why we sent you out there," the man retorts. Gephardt replies that his hands are tied: Republicans control everything - the House, the Senate, the White House. He skips over the fact that for most of his time in Washington, Democrats have had at least one of those in their charge.
And so, in the final race of his political life, Gephardt faces the ultimate conundrum: to sell the virtues of his years as an insider without being tagged as an insider. So far, in Iowa, he's succeeding. He has surged of late, and the new Des Moines Register poll has him ahead of Dr. Dean by 7 points for the Jan. 19 caucuses. But it may be, analysts say, that for Gephardt to survive, he'll need to win Iowa big, not just barely.
In the next test, the New Hampshire primary (Jan. 27), Gephardt is mired in single digits in polls. The question is if he can leap over New Hampshire and take any Iowa momentum into South Carolina and the other Feb. 3 primaries, including Arizona, Michigan, and New Mexico.
During this trip, the campaign is pushing a Washington Post clip with a dream headline: "GOP Sees Gephardt as Toughest Rival for Bush." His union backing and deep roots in the industrial Midwest, a political battleground, make him the Democrat who "many prominent Republicans" believe is best positioned to beat Bush. (Dean, however, just got two major union endorsements.) A few times, Gephardt has also obliquely compared himself to President Truman, a fellow Missourian.
Thus is highlighted another element that some Iowans factor in: electability. Over and over, undecided voters at Gephardt events stress they want someone who could beat Bush - even if it's not the candidate they agree with most.
Fortunately for Gephardt, few of those interviewed at his events had clear memories of his 1988 presidential run. Though he won the Iowa caucuses, his momentum fell off sharply, and he was out of the race within weeks. One who does remember is Rita Goodenow, a retired high school English teacher from Battle Creek. "Now he's so much more experienced," she enthuses. "He was so inept then. Now he knows the issues - healthcare, jobs."
Ultimately, Gephardt makes no apologies for being a Washington insider. When asked about the No. 1 quality he wants to project, he has a ready answer: leadership. "I've been a leader in the highest levels of government for 15 years," he says in an interview. "I've proven leadership ability. That's what the job is about.... I know I can walk in there tomorrow and do this job."
Gephardt also professes unconcern that only one sitting member of the House - where the mandate is to represent constituents' parochial needs, not construct a vision for the nation - has ever been elected president (James Garfield, 1880).
Voters are looking for "steady hands," and someone they like and trust, he says. "I think it has little to do with what job you had before," he continues. "They just assume you're qualified to do this job, or you wouldn't be up there.... They look for human qualities. I always say, in politics, the candidate's a product."
Gephardt understands that in marketing his brand - the new and improved Dick Gephardt, who didn't emerge from a test tube in the Capitol building - he can't indulge in Beltway shorthand. For the most part, he's jargon-free. More than ever in his career, he's also engaging in the politics of the personal - talking about his son's life-threatening illness, one daughter's experience as a low-paid teacher, the other's divorce and emergence as a lesbian.
In the eight events in Iowa that this reporter observed, the gay daughter, Chrissy Gephardt, was never mentioned - but there she is on one of the brochures with her partner at her side. She's already out there, campaigning for her father and reaching out to an important Democratic constituency, the gay and lesbian community.
The family stories Gephardt tells aren't for mere sensation: They serve a purpose. With his son, diagnosed with terminal cancer as a toddler, the moral is that because the Gephardts had health coverage, they could try an experimental treatment. Matthew survived. Even though Gephardt has told the story hundreds, even thousands, of times, it's a high point of his stump speech: "We were lucky. God was good to us. And we had insurance."
Then Gephardt segues into his central policy proposal: Repeal all Bush tax cuts and plow that money into universal healthcare via the current employer-based system. The average family would see a net gain of $2,000 to $3,000 each, he says.
The story of daughter Kate, the teacher, leads into his proposal for a Teacher Corps plan, which would pay the college loans of students who agree to teach in public school for five years. Gephardt's mother's experience as a secretary - five jobs during her life, but only one that paid a pension, just $42 a month - opens the way into his universal pension plan.
It is his daughter Chrissy's story, though, that adds the most texture to Gephardt's evolution away from the social conservatism of his old working-class neighborhood in St. Louis. In the 1980s, he opposed abortion and gay rights. Now, he supports both - up to a point. He supports the ban on so-called "partial birth" abortion. And he still opposes gay marriage.
Dick and Jane Gephardt didn't want to try for the White House again, he says, but President Bush forced his hand. In fact, Gephardt adds, he's more motivated and passionate than in 1988 - more than ever, in fact - because of his time in the congressional leadership. "I participated so closely with the Clinton effort to get the economy straightened out, and I really thought we achieved something," he says in the Monitor interview.
"I was really excited about it.... This is what you look for in public service. Here [Bush] comes and wrecks it and squanders it and messes it up in two short years. And then," he continues, exasperation rising in his voice, "what he's done and not done in foreign policy. It's a disaster. We are in a difficult, dangerous time, and we need good leadership."
Whether Gephardt can convince voters that he's innocent of involvement in Bush's "disaster" of foreign policy remains to be seen. Like most of the other members of Congress running for president, Gephardt voted for the resolution that led to the US invasion of Iraq.
He also supported Bush's $87 billion request to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some Iowans aren't too happy about that - including the young librarian who buttonholed Gephardt after his speech in Rockwell City. Gephardt can explain. But his explanation doesn't fit on a bumper sticker. Such is the life of a Washington insider.
Born: Richard Andrew Gephardt, Jan. 31, 1941.
Hometown: South St. Louis.
Parents: Lou Gephardt, a milk-truck driver; and Loreen Gephardt, a secretary.
Family: Wife, Jane Byrnes Gephardt; daughters Chrissy and Katie; son, Matt.
Education: Northwestern University, B.S., 1962; University of Michigan, J.D., 1965.
Military Service: US Air National Guard, 1965-71.
Previous occupation: Lawyer.
Favorite children's book: "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss.
Favorite song: "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen.
• Student body president at Northwestern.
• Began his career in public service as a precinct captain in St. Louis's 14th Ward.
• St. Louis Board of Aldermen, 1971-76.
• US House, 1977-present. House majority leader from 1989 to 1995; minority leader from 1995 to 2002.
• Ran for president in 1988. (He won the Iowa caucuses and finished second in New Hampshire.)
• Says he "led the fight" to pass Clinton's economic plan in 1993.
• He would eliminate all of Bush's tax cuts and use that money to establish universal health insurance by subsidizing employer-provided plans.
• Opposes privatizing Social Security.
• Proposes that nations adopt minimum-wage laws, to help address imbalances in international trade.
• Wants to create a "Teacher Corps" modeled on ROTC. He would give college students federal aid in return for five years of teaching in public school.
Key legislative positions:
• In 2002, Gephardt supported and worked for the congressional resolution allowing US war against Iraq. This fall, he supported Bush's proposal for $87 billion to fund Iraq and Afghanistan operations.
• Voted for the USA Patriot Act.
• Does not support gay marriage, but does back civil unions.
• Supports the ban on so-called "partial birth abortion," but wishes it contained an exception to protect the mother's health.
Sources: Compiled from wire services, ABC, PBS, The Washington Post, and Slate.
... Where his energy comes from:
I've always had good energy, I've always had good health.... My mother used to say, 'You gotta exercise.' She would really pound on me to exercise every day. She was very physically fit; she was on the basketball team in high school in St. Louis in the 1920s, when women didn't do that. And she taught me to play tennis, taught me to walk and run, and I ran for 30 years pretty religiously.
... On presidential communication:
You see, democracy is interactive.... It's a constant job of information, education, explanation, listening, and interactive communication.... The energy plan has to be explained to people. The reason it's not ever succeeded is we've never had a president who really explained to people why cheap oil is always the easiest way out.
... His proposal to eliminate all of Bush's tax cuts, which some say would effectively be a tax hike:
I see it the other way. I think George Bush made the mistake, because he's put all his eggs in the tax-cut basket, and the tax cut is not working.... Sixty percent of his tax cut goes to the very rich. I'm going to take a lot of that and spread it out evenly among the people.... My healthcare plan puts more money into average families' pockets than the Bush tax cuts.... He's got a lousy tax cut. It's only good for the super wealthy. I've got a tax cut that will help ordinary people.