WASHINGTON – Rep. Dick Gephardt, stepping down Thursday as House Democratic leader, blamed his party's Election Day losses on the political fallout from last year's terrorist attacks and a Republican advantage in fund raising.
Gephardt said he has not decided whether to run for the White House in 2004, although he added: "I'll look at running for president. I've done it before and I know a lot about it."
The Missouri Democrat, 61, made his comments during an interview in the Capitol office he will soon vacate, several hours after a conference call in which he told members of the party rank-and-file that he would not seek a fifth term as party leader.
Gephardt won his seat in Congress in 1976, ran for the White House in 1988, and was a bridge back to the days of a Democratic-controlled House, when he served as majority leader.
He easily retained the leadership post when Republicans won the House in 1994, and tried, unsuccessfully, for eight years to return his party to power. Democrats gained seats in 1996, 1998 and 2000.
Republicans reversed the trend on Tuesday night and picked up at least four seats. The final total hinges on a small number of races as yet unsettled.
"I think in the end the 9/11 issues, the terrorism issues, the president's popularity that comes from that ... trumped economic issues" in the elections, Gephardt said. "I just think people in the end concentrated more on security, and the president came to their community and said, 'Vote for these candidates.'"
Additionally, Gephardt said: "The president's popular. He's at 65 percent. That's a historic high in a midterm election."
President Bush raised roughly $140 million for Republicans in the two years leading to the elections, and travelled the country extensively for GOP candidates in the campaign's final weeks.
Gephardt said the fund-raising disparity was a critical one.
"We raised $95 million without the presidency in a bad economy and I'm proud of it," he said. "But they raised a lot more."
"I've never seen campaigns like this. I've never seen these amounts of money spent, and it had impact," he added.
"Television is a powerful psychological instrument and they commanded the airwaves in this election," Gephardt said of the Republicans.
The congressman said that while he is stepping down as party leader, he intends to take the oath of office for a 14th term in Congress in January. He was re-elected easily on Tuesday in his district in the St. Louis area.