Gephardt Steps Down as House Minority Leader

Richard A. Gephardt said Thursday that he will not run again for House minority leader. The Missouri Democrat's statement was widely anticipated following the party's dismal showing in midterm elections on Tuesday.

"After much deliberation, I have decided not to seek the post of House Democratic leader, a job I have been honored to hold for the past eight years," Gephardt said, releasing a written statement.

Gephardt did not say whether he will take a shot for the presidency in 2004, but his words indicated that he is seriously weighing that option.

"I understand the enormous commitment that is required by the job and I've concluded that in fairness to my friends and colleagues in the House, they need a leader for the next two years who can devote his or her undivided attention to putting our party back in the majority," he said.

"I'm looking forward to the freedom to speak for myself and talk about my vision for America's future," he added.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said he was sorry to see Gephardt step down.

"I am very disappointed. I thought Dick Gephardt was one of the finest democratic leaders our country's ever produced. he is a dear and personal friend of mine and im going to miss him in that capacity. I've had the good fortune of working so closely with him and it'll be different not to have him as my partner," he said during a photo op with independent interim Sen. Dean Barkley of Minnesota.

So far, Gephardt is the sole fall guy to leave the Democratic leadership following Tuesday's showing in the midterm elections. Democrats won 205 seats in that race, a net loss of six seats, when previously Democratically-held vacancies are included. One independent votes with Democrats.

In his announcement, Gephardt made reference to the problems that have plagued the party, most particularly a growing rift between left and center Democrats that has the party debating over what its message should be.

"Staying on in this post requires me to represent my Caucus and the wide diversity it represents, Gephardt said. "One of the key goals of a leader is to build a consensus among Democratic members of Congress, to keep our team together."

"I treasure the institution of the House and the Democratic colleagues I serve with. But it is time for me to give this opportunity and the honor of leadership to someone else. These are new times, and they call for new ideas and bold action," he said.

The fight to replace Gephardt has already begun. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, No. 2 in the party and a well-known liberal, is up against Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, a moderate who said on Thursday that the only way to keep the party together is by staying in the center and presenting new Democratic ideas for spurring the economy and job growth.

"The battleground is in moderate and conservative swing states ... to elect a majority in the House of Representatives, we will have to be successful in those areas, we will have to successful in the swing parts of states, those areas on the map that are colored red," he said, referring to the method of marking Republican wins in red and Democratic wins in blue.

Pelosi, on the other hand, has said that Democrats must move further left and shape themselves into a more cohesive group that is distinctly different from the GOP.

"To win back the House in 2004, we need a unified party that will draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and that espoused by the Republicans," she said in a statement. "Working together, I am confident the Democrats will succeed."

The two and the party are also at odds over Iraq. Pelosi voted along with 125 Democrats against a congressional resolution authorizing president Bush to use force against Iraq if it does not comply with demands for disarmament. Frost was one of 81 Democrats who voted for the measure. Gephardt also supported the resolution on Iraq.

Despite the fissures in the party, Democrats do appear to agree that new blood is needed at the top spot. Even prior to Gephardt's announcement, two Democratic representatives -- Harold Ford of Tennessee and Peter Deutsch of Florida -- publicly suggested that Gephardt resign his leadership.

"I have tremendous respect for him and the energy and passion he brings to the issues -- there's not a more passionate Democrat in the House," Ford told Fox News on Wednesday. But, "if he can't win ball games, then the organization has to move him on."

Ford said there was uneasiness among Democrats reluctant to oust Gephardt, but noted that if the House were a multi-million dollar corporation and its president were failing the company, "shareholders would have asked for his resignation."

Pelosi, according to several Fox News sources, already has 110 votes from the new caucus, enough to defeat Frost for the top job. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, sources also said, had the votes to become House minority whip, the No. 2 leadership post.

Earlier this year, Pelosi beat Hoyer for that position on a closed-ballot count of 118-95, an early indication of her strength. Her base is among California Democrats -- 33 of whom will be in the House next year. She also draws support from women and liberals.

Aides said Gephardt would remain in Congress. He was not expected to discuss any presidential ambitions in the immediate future, although he long has been interested in running for the White House.

He challenged for the party's nomination in 1988, and was on the verge of running a second time in 1998, when Democrats unexpectedly gained seats in midterm elections. He set aside his White House ambitions at the time, endorsed Al Gore and plunged into a two-year campaign to win back the House that fell a few seats short in 2000.

While Gephardt was publicly rebuffed after Tuesday's election, others praised his work over eight years.

"There's no doubt in my mind if he ran for leader he'd be re-elected leader," Hoyer said Wednesday. "I frankly do not believe that the reasons we lost yesterday had anything to do with any failures on his part."

With close ties to organized labor, Gephardt served as his party's chief legislative strategist in the House, often struggling to hold a diverse caucus together on issues ranging from tax policy to international trade legislation.

He was also the Democrats' political leader and chief fund-raiser in the House. In the final weeks before Tuesday's elections, he campaigned for Democratic candidates in competitive House races around the country, and spent hours on the phone in a final round of appeals to party donors.

Gephardt's decision added spice to what was otherwise a predictable series of leadership choices by the two parties in the House and Senate.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and the once and future Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., are reassured of re-election as their party's leaders, a reward for GOP election victories.

No challenger has yet emerged to Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, running for a new term as party leader in the Senate.

Fox News' Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.