Departing Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri has decided to form a presidential exploratory committee, kicking off his second run for the White House in 14 years at an event later this month, The Associated Press has learned.

An invitation obtained by the AP says Gephardt will raise money for the exploratory committee at an event Jan. 22, asking for donations of at least $1,000 — or half the maximum for presidential candidates.

"Join us for a reception benefiting Richard Gephardt for President Exploratory Committee," the invitation said.

A source close to Gephardt, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, confirmed Thursday night that the Missouri Democrat has decided to form the exploratory committee — the traditional first step in a presidential bid — in the next few days.

Gephardt is stepping aside after eight years as the Democratic House leader and will bank on a a strong national organization and close ties to traditional Democratic groups like organized labor to help him in his presidential bid.

His last bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 started strong in Iowa, but quickly faded.

Gephardt is joining a fast-growing Democratic field that includes Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who formally announced Thursday that he would run. The field is expected to grow to at least a half-dozen in the coming days.

The St. Louis native has been in politics since his days as a precinct captain and then an alderman in the city. He has represented that area of eastern Missouri in the House since 1976.

The sandy-haired, youthful looking Gephardt ran for president in 1988 and drew early attention with his stands on the economy and trade and did well in Iowa. But his early successes fizzled and he soon ran out of money.

He served as House Democratic leader from 1994 through 2002. Gephardt led efforts to bring the Democrats back to power in the House after the GOP took control in 1994, gaining ground but never accomplishing his goal.

During the last year, Gephardt visited dozens of cities on behalf of House candidates and also renewed his widespread political network in case he decided on a presidential run. Though Gephardt has been closely connected with traditional Democratic positions and is closely allied with organized labor, he also has been burnishing his moderate credentials this year.

Gephardt helped found the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in the mid-1980s but later broke with it over issues such as his opposition to trade agreements. He addressed the group early this year and talks about offering a bridge between the traditional wing of the party and the centrists.

He worked with President Bush to come up with a resolution on using force against Iraq that eventually passed the House and Senate before being signed. Aides say he backed it because it helped send the president to the United Nations to seek international backing.

Gephardt has been studying politics since he was an 11-year-old who preferred watching the 1952 political conventions to playing outdoors. He's also a devoted fan of the St. Louis Rams, and references to the team and its lagging fortunes surface periodically in his political talk.

Gephardt has strongly criticized the Republicans for not doing more to revive the faltering economy, an issue likely to figure in any national campaign.

He grew up the son of a milk truck driver and got an early appreciation for the labor unions from his Teamster dad. "He used to tell me we had what little money we had because he was represented by a union," Gephardt said.

If he runs, his close ties to labor should help in any primary struggle, even if the big unions make no endorsements.

He argued this fall for an immediate economic stimulus in a combination of tax cuts aimed at the middle class and spending. He wants to simplify the tax code and opposes making the Bush administration tax cuts permanent.

He supported establishment of a Homeland Security Department before the White House embraced the idea. And he has proposed the federal government pursue a project on renewable energy sources with the same intensity of the space program four decades ago.