WASHINGTON – Dick Gephardt joined an increasingly crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls on Monday, and associates said he would focus his efforts on the White House and not run for re-election to the House.
Gephardt filed papers to create an exploratory campaign for the White House.
One of at least five congressional Democrats who are in or about to join the race, Gephardt is the only one who has sought the presidency before.
"I think the country remains evenly divided," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think it is possible to create a new majority in this country for solving the long-standing problems we face."
He enters the race with advantages. At the end of 2002, he had more than $2.6 million in his re-election treasury, which can be used for a presidential campaign. Gephardt, who has been Democratic minority leader for eight years, will not seek re-election to a 15th term, associates said.
He also has a cadre of experienced advisers and a network of activists in Iowa and other key states.
"There's no doubt Gephardt has a good deal of political capital nationwide and influence in House," said Dave Robertson, a longtime political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, in Gephardt's hometown. "In terms of organization, he has more political capital now than he did in 1988."
Gephardt, 61, also has an edge with labor unions, which are influential because they can mobilize hundreds of thousands of votes for a particular candidate. Labor enthusiastically backed Gephardt in 1988, when he championed union opposition to trade agreements.
But while union leaders have responded warmly to his candidacy now, the AFL-CIO and other big unions are holding out to see whether he looks like a winner.
"Does labor think that Gephardt is a horse that can make the race? I don't know that they necessarily think that," said Dennis Goldford, who heads the political science department at Iowa's Drake University.
The reason for these doubts has much to do with the elections on Nov. 5, when Gephardt tried a fourth time to regain the majority and become House speaker. Democrats managed to gain a few seats in 1996, 1998 and 2000, but Republicans in 2002 strengthened their hold on the House, and Gephardt stepped down as minority leader.
The Missourian has kept a low profile since Thursday, when a staffer accidentally faxed out a notice of his new campaign committee. On Monday, Gephardt said of his 1988 performance, "I think we can do even better than that."
In 1988, Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses, finished second in New Hampshire and won South Dakota and his home state of Missouri. But by Super Tuesday, he was out of money and out of the running.
Some consider his background a liability. In 50 years, the only members of Congress to become president other than John F. Kennedy served as vice president first.
Drake University's Goldford said Gephardt builds coalitions to pass legislation in the manner of an engineer.
"Not to knock engineers, but for president, people don't want an engineer. They want an architect, somebody who can project a vision," Goldford said. "Now, can Gephardt develop that capacity? He's never shown it yet."
Gephardt is speaking in broad terms at this point and says specifics will come later. In his statement Saturday, he said President Bush is leading the country astray or not at all on national security, the economy, health care, education and energy policy.
"I think there are a lot of questions starting to be asked by citizens about where we are headed, what kind of leadership is being provided," Gephardt said. "I think people are ready to hear about different approaches."