NEW YORK – The race is on for a replacement for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and it's shaping up to be a contest that could very well tear the Democratic Party apart.
Amid finger-pointing by Democrats looking for a scapegoat for this year's House losses in the midterm election, House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, are seeking the backing to become the next party leader. The leadership election is scheduled for next Thursday.
On Friday morning, another name was thrown into the mix.
Rep. Harold Ford, from Al Gore's home state of Tennessee, announced in an interview that he thinks Pelosi and Frost represent a leadership style that the party needs to change and he may be the man to change it.
"I recognize that I am an underdog because I'm starting out late," said the 32-year-old Ford, who added, "there's a real yearning and a real appetite for change in the party."
Gephardt became the first fall guy since Democrats failed to regain the majority in the House following eight years of Republican rule.
Announcing his plans to step down from the Democratic leadership post, Gephardt said in a written statement: "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 ... 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."
Party rank and file have now had to choose between the candidates, all of whom think they have the chops, but have far differing political perspectives. The philosophical contrast demonstrates the pickle Democrats are in trying to find a party platform that resonates with voters.
Pelosi is a well-known liberal from San Francisco and would be expected to bring Democrats further away from the political center if chosen to succeed Gephardt.
She formally announced her bid on Thursday afternoon, saying that Democrats must move further left and shape themselves into a more cohesive group that is distinctly different from the GOP.
"We must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans. We cannot allow Republicans to pretend they share our values and then legislate against those values without consequence," she said in a written statement. "I am convinced that the American people share our values and our hopes for the country."
Frost said he thinks Pelosi will lead the party in the wrong direction.
"There are an awful lot of Democrats who are very uneasy about the party moving sharply to the left and who want a party that's in the middle that speaks strongly and confronts the Republicans," Frost said. "I think that her politics are to the left, and I think that the party, to be successful, must speak to the broad center of the country."
Frost said Democrats need to be in the middle to regain seats in the House in 2004.
"The country Tuesday moved somewhat to the right," Frost said Thursday when announcing his run for minority leader. "I believe our party must occupy the center if we are to be successful, if we are to come back in the majority and not move farther to the left. It's a clear choice."
Frost said Democrats will fail miserably if they try to take on President Bush and the GOP on issues such as foreign policy and Iraq. He said voters, particularly those who may have been undecided on Election Day, obviously sided with Bush's stance on the war on terror when it came time to go to the polls.
"The president successfully won, I believe, by standing for a strong America. The country is with the president on that issue," said Frost, who voted in favor of a congressional resolution authorizing the United States to use military force against Iraq if Saddam Hussein doesn't comply with demands for disarmament.
Frost said Democrats must appeal to swing voters on the issues of economy and jobs if they are to have any hope for 2004.
"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 [be] 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.
Frost, who represents the 24th District of Texas, including Dallas, is in his twelfth term in Congress. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee and earlier this year served on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.
The highest-ranking southern Democrat in the House, Frost co-authored the National Amber Alert Act, which would make the system for helping find missing children a national priority.
Ford was elected this week to his fourth term. He succeeded his father, Harold Ford Sr. in representing the Memphis area. Last year, the younger Ford was named one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" by "People" magazine. He serves on the House Education and Workforce and Government Reform committees and was keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
Pelosi, the highest-ranking female in Congress, may have a leg up on her competitors, however.
Early this year, Pelosi was chosen by the party caucus over Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland for the minority whip position, succeeding Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, who quit to run for governor of Michigan.
She has kept a high profile since by being the ranking House Democrat of the joint intelligence panel tasked with reviewing pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures. She also crafted an alternative to House Majority Leader Dick Armey's homeland security bill.
Pelosi already has assembled a list of at least 110 backers that she would release when Gephardt announces his decision, which would be enough to get her chosen. In the new Congress, leadership will be decided by the 205 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with them.
Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton said he believes the consensus is that Pelosi definitely has the upper hand, but that Bush's success or failure in Iraq — and the Democrats' approach to a war — will also affect the 2004 outcome.
"The situation is a lot like what Democrats went through in 1968 to '72" during Nixon's first term, Pinkerton said. Democrats were very divided over that war. Those who opposed the war took over the party and ran then-South Dakota Sen. George McGovern for president in 1972. McGovern lost in a landslide.
"I think the same dynamic is happening now," Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor, said. "It's sort of a gamble [for Democrats] — the big issue in 2004 is going to be the Iraq war."
Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report agreed that Pelosi has the votes to win the leadership post since she has the favor of the California delegation, women members and the Congressional Black Caucus.
But will a move to the left help Democrats in 2004?
"The answer is no," Barone said. "I think it will hurt them in 2004."
Brookings Institution senior fellow E.J. Dionne said the key to success for whoever succeeds Gephardt will be an ability to find issues that will unite both liberal and moderate Democrats.
"I think there are a lot of issues where the requirement for Democrats is to bring those two sides together, because that's how you form a majority," Dionne said. "What troubles me about the way the Pelosi-Frost debate is going, to just go down this very old, tired ideological road that doesn't get the Democrats anywhere."
Dionne said that if the two sides of the party "don't fly together, the bird crashes into a tree."
For its part, the White House has said that the president can work with anyone Democrats choose to fill Gephardt's position.
If Pelosi does make the move up, Hoyer, who was considered more moderate than Pelosi in the earlier whip election, is almost certain to move into the minority whip's post, a Hoyer aide said, having secured commitments from 168 members of the incoming Democratic caucus.