Gephardt Enjoying Freedom from House Leadership Post

Gone is the title of House minority leader (search) and the legislative and political responsibilities that came with it. Gone, too, is the pressure of worrying about the next congressional campaign.

Dick Gephardt (search) has shed his leadership job to focus on what is probably his last political chase, his second and final bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He clearly relishes his newfound freedom.

At one recent Iowa appearance, he pounded his fist and spoke passionately about his family's health care experiences. Constant eye contact with the crowd, a jab of his hand or finger to make a point - all are hallmarks of an energized Gephardt on the campaign trail.

"He always looked wooden to me on the tube," said 19-year-old Spencer Higgins of Ottumwa, who is barely aware that Gephardt ran unsuccessfully for the 1988 nomination. "The man's alive, man. Alive."

That assessment may come as a surprise to some in Washington who see the 13-term Gephardt as a Capitol Hill creature, a no-nonsense Missouri lawmaker who has spent nearly half his 62 years waging fights in Congress over trade, taxes and welfare.

It isn't that Gephardt is considered lacking in emotion. After all, this is the former leader who tried to rally his caucus by showing film clips of Braveheart and Gladiator, hoping the exploits of Scotsman William Wallace and Roman general-turned-slave Maximus would inspire the Democratic troops. To press his point in the closed caucus room, Gephardt even donned a breastplate and painted his face a la Wallace.

Still, the words Gephardt and charismatic rarely appear in the same sentence, and the candidate must overcome the perception he's a political has-been.

"Some people say he's old shoe leather, that he's been around too long," said Gary Lamb, a veteran Democratic activist and Chelsea, Iowa, farmer. "I think experience ought to count for something."

In his presidential pursuit, Gephardt is waging a roll-of-the-dice, up-or-out style campaign, proposing a sweeping health care plan that would essentially raise taxes by repealing most of President Bush's tax-cutting initiatives and using the money to help businesses cover their employees.

Expectations are high for Gephardt in Iowa; the congressman from neighboring Missouri won the precinct caucuses in 1988 before stumbling in the primaries and watching Michael Dukakis capture the nomination. In November, the nation elected the first President Bush.

"When I was a leader, I couldn't have brought up getting rid of the tax cut and doing health care in this way," Gephardt said. "I would have had to go through too many parts of the caucus. I could just never get an agreement."

Republicans argue that Gephardt has given up more than just his leadership post. Citing the more than 80 percent of the House votes he's missed, they argue that he is an AWOL congressman who should stop the pretense and simply resign from his seat. The Democrat ignores the criticism.

"I do feel liberated," he said. "I feel good about what I'm able to advocate."

On a single campaign day in Iowa, Gephardt crammed in five appearances before stopping for a late-night cup of coffee at the home of Bob Dvorsky, a state lawmaker who had showed up at a house party for Gephardt in Iowa City.

"I think the whole idea that he's free from leadership and is out here speaking his mind is appealing," said Dvorsky, who stopped short of a full-fledged endorsement. "He's a very presentable, affable person. He's a very middle-America person."

Mary Jo Meggars, a nurse who lives on a farm near Cedar Rapids, spent hours on the telephone rounding up friends and neighbors to show up on a nearby farm and hear Gephardt pitch his health care plan.

"Most all of my farm neighbors have a job away from the farm just to get health care," she said.

Gephardt also has carefully cultivated old friends. Ralph Johnson, 66, of Fairfield, was a county chairman for Gephardt in 1988, and the candidate has made a point of staying in touch on a weekly basis. Every Sunday, Johnson gets a call from the Gephardt family. And shortly before Johnson's wife died, Gephardt visited her in the hospital.