WASHINGTON – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who inherited her seat from Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who stepped down to run for president, returned the favor Wednesday, giving him her endorsement for the top post in the land.
"Proudly, I stand here to endorse Richard Gephardt for president of the United States," the California Democrat, joined by about 30 other congressional representatives, announced.
In attendance at the event, Gephardt said he was "humbled and heartened by this demonstration of support."
Endorsements seldom translate directly to actual votes, but can signal a candidate's credibility with party establishment types and their confidence in a candidate's viability as a serious contender.
At this point in the campaign, backers are looking at how much money a candidate can raise, what their organization is like, their credibility and viability.
A few of the candidates have earned some high-level endorsements already. Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, for instance, has the endorsement of his home-state colleague Sen. Chris Dodd as well as at least 11 other congressional Democrats.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has won the endorsement of his home-state colleague Sen. Ted Kennedy and several other congressional Democrats. At least six members of North Carolina's congressional contingent support Sen. John Edwards. He's also got the endorsement of former Congressional Black Caucus President and Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has the support of at least two members of Congress as well as movie stars Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen.
As a woman, a leader in the party and a liberal organizer, Pelosi's nod says to Democrats on Capitol Hill and around the country that Democratic leaders who want more than anything else to beat President Bush believe Gephardt has the credibility and the wherewithal to make a viable general election nominee to go up against Bush.
Pelosi made clear that's what she thinks of Gephardt.
"We want a winner. We want someone who can take back the White House and I am giving my professional judgment that that person is Dick Gephardt," Pelosi said. "The stakes are so high now the urgency so great, the difference that I could make in my endorsement is important and an opportunity, one that we did not want to miss, and the opportunity was one to support and help make him president."
Members of Congress who are not historically prone to endorsements -- particularly this early -- can have tremendous influence on the electoral process. As delegates to the nominating convention, their vote for a presidential nominee counts. They also can influence other voting delegates.
"We've already gotten 30 votes toward the nomination and that's better than none and that's helpful," Gephardt said of the congressional supporters.
"Secondly, they are all going to help in their own states and their own districts, they're respected in their states or they wouldn't have won office so it's good to have their help there. Finally, they can go to New Hampshire, they can go to Iowa and stand up and say, 'Hey, this would be a good president. Dick Gephardt would be a good president,'" he said.
Ideologically, Pelosi can also have a significant impact. Liberal activists are the most prone to vote in the primaries. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the early voting states, liberals could have a major say in how the primary shakes out. Already, a battle is brewing among Democrats. Some, including Lieberman, are courting middle-of-the-roaders. Others, like Gephardt and Dean are trying to woo liberals.
But the real problem for the Democratic presidential candidate at this stage of the game is not the backing from official sources, but recognition by the general public. A new New York Times poll shows that 66 percent of Americans can't name one Democratic presidential candidate. That number is 64 percent among self-identified Democrats.
Lieberman was recognized by 9 percent of voters -- Kerry by 7 percent.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.