Gephardt Seeks to Fill Void Left by Clinton's Shift to the Center

In the parlor game of presidential politics, the early moves are beginning.

This week, while House minority leader Richard Gephardt was in Chicago, outlining his objections to renewing special trade status with China, Vice President Al Gore was touring a high-tech plant in New Hampshire, wagging a finger at elementary school kids about smoking.

One stressed traditional Democratic themes of protecting US jobs at home and human rights abroad. The other focused on New Democratic themes of kids, anti-tobacco campaigns, and technology.

The vignettes symbolize the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party as early maneuvering for the presidential election in 2000 begins.

Twice in recent weeks, Mr. Gep-hardt (D) of Missouri has gone out of his way to separate himself from the Clinton administration, including Mr. Gore - currently the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. First he opposed the bipartisan balanced-budget agreement President Clinton worked out with congressional GOP leaders. Then he opposed Clinton's renewal of China's low-tariff trade status.

"I don't think he's preparing to run. I think he's preparing to consider running," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

Gephardt calls his collisions with the White House a "momentary disagreement." But they illustrate the gap between moderate New Democrats - a group Clinton helped found - and traditional pro-labor and liberal members. New Democrats argue that the party must reconnect with the center of the electorate and restructure policies and institutions that, while useful in their day, are now outdated.

But many liberal and labor Democrats view with extreme skepticism any attempt to alter the web of social programs and labor laws put in place under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal or Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

The debate has raged among Democrats for 20 years: between Jimmy Carter and Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, and now Clinton and Gephardt.

"Many Democrats - including most party leaders in the House - believe the way to retake Congress is to build a majority around non-college graduates at the lower end of the economic spectrum ...," writes Al From, Democratic Leadership Council president, in The New Democrat magazine. "They're wrong in both their political analysis and in their substance. No matter how you massage the polls, I cannot accept that Democrats can build a political majority on a foundation of big federal deficits, empty promises to seniors, trade protection, and restoration of the failed welfare state."

Gephardt may be trying to shore up his base as he evaluates whether or not to run again. But if he is to succeed, he may have to broaden his appeal beyond union members and disenchanted liberals.

Based on the theme of fair trade vs. free trade, Gephardt's 1988 campaign got off to a running start when he won the Iowa caucuses. But he ran head on into the Michael Dukakis juggernaut in New Hampshire and failed to rebound in subsequent primaries. His trade platform proved too thin even in the union-heavy Michigan Democratic caucuses, where he finished third, and he withdrew just in time to save his House seat.

Gephardt spokeswoman Laura Nichols waves off speculation about presidential aspirations. Her boss's goal, she says, is to become Speaker of the House. "He is focusing all of his energies on the 1998 campaign and on putting Democrats back in control of House."

Gephardt has argued that free trade with China has not improved the human-rights situation there, much as President Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" did nothing to soften the former South African regime's apartheid policy of racial segregation.

"It's a long-held view and a consistent position for him," Ms. Nichols says, noting that Gephardt has voted against "most-favored-nation" status for China several times. Similarly, he came out against the budget deal because he felt it did not uphold the principle of fair taxation, she says.

"I think he has positioned himself excellently to command the liberal base of the Democratic Party in the primaries. I think from his point of view it is a wise decision," says the House's No. 2 Republican, Dick Armey of Texas, regarding the Democratic leader's opposition to the budget.

Indeed, Gephardt has broken with Clinton before. In 1994, he was a leader in the fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

'He's doing all the right things on the agenda he can control," Professor Sabato says. "But it's the agenda he can't control that will determine whether he runs or not." That includes the state of the economy and how scandal affects Gore and the Clinton administration.

Gore will the be the "Bill Clinton substitute" on the ballot in 2000, Sabato says. "In 2000 will Democrats want Bill Clinton to have another term? And will people in general want Bill Clinton to have a third term? If the answer to either question is no, Gore will not be president."

Gephardt may say he is not campaigning, but Gore seems to be taking no chances. On the day Gephardt was in Detroit, the vice president made a campaign-style swing into New Hampshire. He noted that the primary was 987 days away.

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