Narrow focus fells Gephardt. AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR

Presidential candidate Richard Gephardt returns to St. Louis today, dropping out of the race for the White House to hold onto a sure thing - his congressional seat. The tough-trade-talking Missouri congressman decided to pull out after his third-place finish in Saturday's Michigan caucus failed to reinvigorate his faltering candidacy. Today is his deadline to file the necessary papers to run again for his seat in Missouri's Third Congressional District.

Mr. Gephardt spent Sunday in his home near the nation's capital with family and top advisers, going over the possible alternatives for a campaign that began with Iowa victory parties, but ended in a struggle for scarce news media dollars. His official announcement was made yesterday on Capitol Hill. (Congress readies sweeping trade bill, Page 5.)

Michigan was perceived as a do-or-die state for the Gephardt campaign. If his strong admonitions against unfair trade practices could not find a winning audience among the state's steel and auto workers, then few analysts thought he could continue. Although labor never gave any formal endorsement, most union officials supported Gephardt. In the last days of the campaign, Gephardt asked his audiences to give him a ``Michigan miracle.''

``I don't think any of us know what happened,'' says Joseph Trippi, about the Michigan loss. ``By the time we got ... [to] Michigan, I think a lot of people already decided we weren't in it,'' he says. Mr. Trippi, Gephardt's national political director, says their message was right on target and blames his candidate's withdrawal on a number of factors, primarily financial.

``If you don't have enough money to get your message out and the other guys have enough money to steal it and say it's theirs, suddenly it's not yours anymore. One of the lessons is, if you don't have the money to be competitive, you're going to lose,'' he says.

Trippi also says the campaign was damaged in the Super Tuesday contests, where the other candidates ``ganged up'' on the out-spent Gephardt, and the press gave Gephardt ``horrible'' coverage. Of the 20 states holding contests March 8, Missouri was the only one Gephardt was able to capture. The other candidates, worried about the strength of Gephardt's message to the rank-and-file Southern Democrats, pounded his campaign with negative ``comparative'' ads that included a gymnast flip-flopping across a stage - a reference to alleged reversals in Gephardt's policy positions.

His tough line on trade was not always well received. In an editorial last week, the Detroit Free Press told the congressman to ``park his K-car as well as its misleading message'' - a reference to a Gephardt TV spot attacking Korean trade barriers.

Although the candidate has been forced out, his issues remain. Gephardt's tough trade talk and populist message have been absorbed by his competitors. Albert Gore now talks about wanting to put the White House ``on the side of working men and women,'' and Michael Dukakis has endorsed strong trade legislation similar to the bill Gephardt introduced in Congress.

Gephardt may also have been hurt by a seeming inconsistency in his message. ``The issue at stake in 1988,'' he would tell audiences, ``is whether or not America will continue to be in decline, because that's where we are today.'' With many economic indicators pointing upward, the message of decline never seemed to take hold.

Gephardt's staff has been calling the delegates pledged to the candidate to see if they would stick with him until the convention. Now that he has dropped out, his delegates are permitted to support anyone they choose, and they will certainly be courted by the other candidates. Most of those called said they would stick with Gephardt, according to campaign sources.

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