COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri favorite son Dick Gephardt (search) is not the favorite vice presidential candidate of several rank-and-file state Democratic leaders looking to deliver its 11 electoral votes to John Kerry (search).
Asked which prospective running mate would help Kerry win the battleground state, eight of 11 county chairmen and chairwomen selected at random by The Associated Press chose Sen. John Edwards (search) of North Carolina. Gephardt and Edwards are among those Kerry is reported to be considering.
Only two of the county officials chose Gephardt, and one picked Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. President Bush won Missouri by just 3 percentage points in 2000.
"Gephardt just doesn't have the get-up-and-go that Edwards has," said Irma Brannum of Poplar Bluff, the Butler County party chairwoman. "Edwards is the exciting one," said St. Charles County chairman Joe Koester.
High-profile Missouri Democrats, however, are gleeful at the prospect of having a home-state friend on the national ticket. Gephardt is a national political figure, seasoned by almost three decades in the House as well as two bids for the Democratic nomination for president.
Gephardt easily won most of his 14 congressional campaigns, often with two-thirds or more of the vote. When he was among 12 Democrats who ran for the presidential nomination in 1988, he placed first in the state's primary with nearly 30 percent of the votes cast. He dropped out of the 2004 race before the state primary.
"The congressman has great experience, an outstanding resume, and he is an incredibly tireless campaigner," state party chairwoman May Scheve Reardon said. "There is no doubt that would clinch Missouri."
Others aren't as certain. Gephardt's popularity and influence among Missouri Democrats is not strong outside of St. Louis. Many rural voters distrust big-city politicians. He has never run for statewide office and lacks the profile and rapport that grows from traveling its back roads.
"I mostly know Gephardt from seeing him on 'Meet the Press,"' said Charles Christy of Columbia, longtime Boone County Democratic Committee chairman. "That John Edwards is a fresh face and exciting."
In southwest Missouri's Lawrence County, party chairman Jim Kabell recalled traveling seven times to Iowa to knock on doors for Gephardt — but being dazzled by Edwards and the excited new voters he drew to a rally in Springfield, Mo.
"The person I like best and I hear the most buzz about for VP in our area is John Edwards," Kabell said.
Democrats outside St. Louis were indifferent about Gephardt and, in candid moments, slightly resentful.
Gephardt visited Missouri Democrat Days, an annual party festival in Hannibal, during his 1988 bid for the party's presidential nomination. He didn't stop in again until this year, once more wedging a visit into a national campaign schedule.
"To a certain extent we do feel forgotten by Gephardt unless he needs us," said Daryl Boulware, a Vilsack backer and the Democratic chairman in Clark County along the Iowa border. "We are rural folks and sometimes we do feel neglected."
Gephardt supporters, however, point to his political experience and the powerful backing of organized labor.
Franz Penner of Lamar, chairman of the Barton County committee in Harry Truman's birthplace along the Kansas border, said he would choose Gephardt because "labor would surely turn out with Gephardt on the ticket. But maybe they would anyway."
Another supporter, not surprisingly, is state Rep. Fred Kratky, chairman of the city of St. Louis party committee and a longtime Gephardt ally.
"He is a straightforward guy with no baggage. He is reputable," Kratky said. "I'd tell someone from outstate that they just need to get to know him, they'd see for themselves."
Gephardt has delivered federal money and influence to St. Louis, to be sure, and boosters say a thriving St. Louis is good for the whole state's economy. But some still question his political muscle in the Show-Me State at large.
"Before Gephardt became a presidential candidate, he had never been to this part of the state much," said Robert Shettles, a Clay County committee member in the Kansas City suburbs, "and that kind of alienated me."