REP. RICHARD A. GEPHARDT of Missouri is almost always cool and calm, but in this particular meeting in May 1986, he was distinctly uncomfortable. A week before, the Wall Street Journal had mentioned his switch on abortion policy. Now, after a breakfast meeting in St. Louis, a Missouri anti-abortion group had him cornered. Had he switched his position, the group asked, or would he continue to sign a pledge supporting a human-life amendment to the United States Constitution?
Mr. Gephardt huddled with an adviser and a former campaign aide. The former aide said he should maintain his strong anti-abortion stance. The other argued that Gephardt had made an irreversible commitment to change his position. Left unsaid was what other advisers had counseled: A run for the Democratic presidential nomination would be difficult after signing such a strong anti-abortion manifesto.
Gephardt refused to sign.
The decision says a lot about this young presidential candidate. House colleagues and former aides praise Gephardt for effective legislative leadership, but some criticize his apparent willingness to sacrifice principle for political expediency.
If he can compromise on such a longstanding and deeply felt position as abortion, they ask, on what issues would he stand firm? This question looms large over Gephardt's push for the presidency.
Throughout his career, Gephardt has gravitated naturally toward leadership - an Eagle Scout at 15, president of the Northwestern University student senate, St. Louis alderman, US congressman, and finally chairman of the House Democratic Caucus - the fourth-highest Democratic Party post in the House of Representatives.
Among his House colleagues, Gephardt is regarded as smart, hard working, and blessed with a rare ability to listen.
``I think he loves the process,'' says Rep. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota. ``A lot of people in politics walk around with kind of a vacant stare. When you deal with Dick personally ... you always get the feeling that he's focusing on the issue.''
Gephardt has built his reputation in the House largely on his ability to work out compromises, notably the role he has played on several important bills. He helped craft the Bradley-Gephardt tax reform bill, social security reform, and a compromise version of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-cutting bill.
Overall, the impression Gephardt leaves is positive and congenial.
``He was really one of those good, clean-cut American kids - the type every mother would want her daughter to come home with,'' says Paulette Cooper, a school classmate.
``I don't know of anyone in the House or Senate who doesn't like Dick,'' adds a Democratic congressman. Sixty US representatives have publicly endorsed Gephardt.
First elected to Congress in 1976, Gephardt attracted allies by cultivating junior House members as well as a few senior Democratic congressman, such as former Rep. Richard Bolling of Missouri and the late Gillis Long of Louisiana. Gephardt gained a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which is rare for a freshman, and learned the political ropes. By 1983, there was talk among dissatisfied younger House Democrats that Gephardt should challenge Thomas (Tip) O'Neill as Speaker of the House. In 1984, Gephardt was elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
If Gephardt makes a lot of allies, friends and critics say, it's because he rarely communicates all that he's thinking. But former staff members and even Democratic colleagues are troubled by Gephardt's lack of clear communication.
``There's a tendency to make people think that he agrees with them - and he doesn't,'' a former aide adds. ``People who work for him are never quite clear ... where he stands.''
The confusion allows Gephardt to swing dramatically on issues, some congressmen charge.
``I'm troubled by his level of flexibility,'' says one House Democratic colleague, who requested anonymity. ``It's always been my thought that you run for president on your firm beliefs.... I don't know that Dick has any fixed beliefs or political philosophy.''
OF the several changes Gephardt has made on issues, perhaps the one that has raised the most questions is his stance on abortion.
Gephardt himself claims he has not changed his anti-abortion beliefs, only his tactics.
``The goal is to try to not have as many abortions,'' he told the Monitor last year. ``At one time I thought legally there was a way to do that. I now believe after 14 years of fighting about the issue that we've really got to get down to the underlying problem. ... The continuing debate and battle over the law complicates our ability to get consensus to do the things that we can do: giving people choices, helping people avoid unwanted pregnancies.''
Such pragmatism in the highly charged debate might be considered laudable in some circles. But 10 years earlier, Gephardt cosponsored a human-life amendment, painting the issue in strong moral terms.
``The Declaration of Independence asserts `all men are created equal.' It follows that a person becomes such when he is created and that, in my opinion, is the factual point where life begins,'' he told his House colleagues. ``By ruling, however, that a woman may legally have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, the Supreme Court has sanctioned the denial of the unborn's rights....''
It is disingenuous, anti-abortion activists say, for a man to paint an issue in such moral terms, abandon it for pragmatic political reasons later, and then claim he has not modified his personal views on the subject.
``At least if you're going to switch positions, you ought to say you're doing it,'' says the Rev. Joseph Naumann, a pro-life coordinator for the St. Louis Roman Catholic archdiocese.
By fuzzing the issue - saying he personally opposes abortion but won't outlaw it - Gephardt appears to be trying to woo both sides.
For example: In 1985, when he was already considering a run for president, Gephardt began to dis-tance himself from the anti-abortion position, according to the Missouri Citizens for Life. Phone calls to his office weren't returned as promptly; Gephardt voted against the group's position on two amendments dealing with foreign funding of abortions.
Yet in July of that year, Gephardt was assuring longtime supporters in the group that he believed in the pro-life position as much as any issue. The following March - just two months before announcing his ``tactical'' change on abortion - Gephardt took out a full-page political ad in the group's convention booklet. Even at the crucial May 1986 meeting, where he announced he no longer supported a human-life amendment, ``he was telling us he was pro-life,'' recalls Ceil Callahan, the group's political action committee chairman.
But within 14 months, Gephardt told the National Women's Political Caucus that as president he would not veto an appropriation of federal funds for abortions. ``We're really encouraged to see him make the movement he's made on this issue,'' says Laura Cohen, state coordinator for the Missouri National Abortion Rights Action League.
Gephardt aide Andrea King says she sees no contradiction in Gephardt's stand: ``It's a straddling of labels. It's not a straddling of philosophies.'' As a congressman, Gephardt continues to oppose federal funding of abortions, she adds.
For anti-abortion activists, some former aides, and several House colleagues, the switch on abortion raises a serious question: Does Gephardt have any rock-solid beliefs?
In his early years in Congress, Gephardt reflected his district - a conservative, nearly all-white slice of St. Louis and its southern suburbs. He opposed establishing an independent consumer protection agency and the Education Department; he opposed involuntary busing and supported the neutron bomb. As late as 1981, he voted with a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats 69 percent of the time, according to a Congressional Quarterly study, and opposed it only 27 percent of the time.
But gradually Gephardt took more liberal stands. He now calls for major new federal funding of education, opposes the anti-busing amendment he once supported, and calls for a freeze on nuclear weapons testing. By 1986, he was voting with the conservative coalition only 18 percent of the time and opposing it 54 percent of the time, the Congressional Quarterly analysis shows. His ratings with various lobbying groups have also changed significantly.
IN and of themselves, these changes are not surprising for an 11-year congressman who has moved onto the national stage. The problem in Gephardt's case is that, as with abortion, he claims to have made only tactical changes.
``You don't change the goal,'' he says. ``You've got to try your best to get there. [But] from time to time you have to change the way you go.''
Even critics acknowledge that Gephardt operates by a set of principles he wouldn't compromise: the Golden Rule, an ethic of hard work, and the ability to put himself in other people's shoes. His closet seems devoid of skeletons.
``Dick ... has never been one of the pack,'' says Mont Hoyt, a friend and former college classmate of Gephardt's. ``He's always been setting himself to a higher standard.''
But what that standard is remains fuzzy. ``Ultimately, Dick is an enigma. And I can't tell you that I can read him precisely enough,'' says Joe Kochanski, a cousin and former campaign aide. But ``somehow or other, he always winds up on his feet.''
Tenth in a series. Tomorrow: George Bush.
Strength from a family crisis
WHEN Richard Gephardt was six years old, he became for a time a surrogate son.
His aunt and uncle, Charlotte and Ed Matthes, had just lost their son, Bobby, so young Dick often visited their home in nearby DeSoto, Mo., or accompanied them on trips.
``He would go just to be with them,'' recalls Dick's mother, Loreen. ``He felt very strongly about Bobby's death. He didn't see why it had to happen.''
Twenty years later, the Mattheses traveled to St. Louis to repay the favor. The Gephardt's 18-month-old son, Matthew, had just been diagnosed as having a possibly fatal form of cancer (he lived). Mrs. Matthes remembers Gephardt's reaction: ``He grabbed us and said: `Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Ed, I didn't know what you went through until now.'''
This human, private side of Gephardt is rarely glimpsed by outsiders. The public man is cool and collected. Despite a grueling campaign schedule, the candidate's shirts never seem wrinkled and his hair is never mussed.
As a man who buries his emotions in public, Gephardt skirted the subject of his son's illness in an inter-view. But several relatives agree that that period in the early '70s was the biggest crisis of his life.
``It had a great effect on both of us,'' says Jane Gephardt, his wife. ``It really made you realize how short life is and how precious each moment of that life is. So it gave us a real sense of urgency about our lives - that you do today what you think is important.''
``Dick and I made a real concerted effort not to baby Matt,'' Mrs. Gephardt adds. ``We never held him back, never said: `Matt, you can't do that. It might be too much for you.' It was always: `Go do it!'''
In the fall of 1986, when Gephardt was considering running for president, he took his family out on several campaign trips to let them make up their own minds. Jane was hesitant because of the race's possible impact on their three children, but it was Matt who held out the longest. So father and son made a few campaign swings together.
``He saw people's reactions to Dick, you know, that they responded well to him and wanted him to run,'' Jane Gephardt recalls. ``I think that helped set his mind that Dick should do it.''
Will trade shortfall be a political windfall?
OF all the major presidential candidates this year, Richard Gephardt has taken the toughest stance on trade.
His amendment to the trade bill, which would give the president new powers in dealing with the nation's trade deficit, has caused a major splash.
Many trade unionists are cheering, especially those in manufacturing.
``I think he's the one to be there,'' says Lonnie White, president of a United Automobile Workers local in Newton, Iowa. A major selling point, he adds, is Representative Gephardt's stance on trade.
Protectionism? Many economists are dubious about the Gephardt amendment, however, calling it protectionist.
``It's too automatic in adjustment,'' says Lawrence Klein, a Nobel laureate and economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. ``What he's trying to do is make a legislative rule about a target,'' namely reducing the deficit. The better way is to enhance the nation's own competitiveness, Mr. Klein adds.
The Gephardt amendment calls for a set of negotiations with other nations, such as Japan, which run a huge trade surplus with the United States. If those negotiations fail, the president would have the power to trim the trade deficit by curtailing imports from that country.
Before the stock market crash last October, several observers called the Gephardt amendment a political master stroke. It distinguished the little-known congressman from the other candidates, answered questions about his leadership ability, and solidified his support among many trade unionists in important states such as Iowa.
Since the market crash, the political advantages have evaporated, says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. The crash made many Americans uneasy, he says, raising the specter of the '30s and the damaging Smoot-Hawley protectionist tariffs that Congress levied in the wake of the 1929 crash.
Lately, Gephardt himself has played down the toughness of his trade program. ``It's a flexible approach that offers the power to incrementally retaliate if the president feels that is the only route left and the right thing to do,'' he says. ``So it is the foe of protectionism.''
``I don't think Dick's position on trade is going to backfire because of Wall Street,'' adds US Rep. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota, who supports the amendment. ``If you go to a room of average folks ... if you give them all sides of the trade issue, they'll come down on the side of common sense.''
Farm policy. Gephardt calls for an end to the current free-market tilt in US agriculture. Instead, he would raise farm prices and impose quotas on how much grain farmers can produce. Agricultural economists and policymakers since the early 1950s generally have moved away from production controls, but among several farm groups, the proposal has emerged as the major alternative to the current programs.
Gephardt cosponsored the farm proposal with Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa. The Iowa caucuses next month will serve as the first major test of the candidates' popularity.
The deficit. Gephardt aims to trim the budget deficit by shifting more of the costs of Western defense onto US allies and by imposing a fee on imported oil. The fee could be considered protectionist, but Gephardt argues that it is aimed at the OPEC cartel, which tries to manipulate world oil prices. Mr. Klein, the economist, supports the idea of a fee as an acceptable exception to free trade.
Competitiveness. Gephardt also wants to improve US industrial competitiveness. He would expand tax credits on research and development. He would boost federal funding in education, with subsidies to students who pursue graduate studies in engineering, math, science, and foreign languages; to corporations that donate computers and other equipment to schools; and to poor school districts that can't afford computers and other technological advances.
Foreign policy. Gephardt has recently branched out in foreign affairs. He has pledged that as president he would end US aid to the Nicaraguan contras, confine ``star wars'' research to the laboratory, and seek a 50 percent cut in US and Soviet nuclear strategic arsenals.