WASHINGTON – Some call him the consummate politician, campaigning frenetically on behalf of his Democratic peers while keeping one eye on the presidency, the other on the House speakership.
So, it is no surprise that House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is spending his Easter recess campaigning for Democrats in hopes of helping the party win the six seats necessary to take back the House in 2002.
The win is critical for his own ambitions of higher office — ambitions fueled during 30 years of elected office. Political observers suggest, though, that the House speakership may be as far as the 14-term congressman gets.
"If he hasn't been able to catch fire since 1976, maybe he never will," suggested Rich Galen, a Republican political strategist. "Gephardt has been running for president forever. He's been doing this for a quarter-century."
Democratic backers say Gephardt's whirlwind tour of the states to drum up support and raise cash for his colleagues and Democratic candidates is part of his job, regardless of his future political ambitions.
"He’s very generous in the time he spends supporting the party," said Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
The fact of the matter is, however, that since June 2001, when the Senate balance tipped toward Democrats, the usually staid chamber has become the setting for harsh political mudslinging. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has taken on the role of Democratic poster child and all-purpose villain for the GOP. Some think Republicans have had a hand in making this so, Gephardt's visibility has suffered for it and so too will his political future.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the Republicans, from the White House on down have set a strategy of putting all of the attention on Daschle," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. "There isn't a Republican speech that doesn't take place without a reference to Daschle the obstructionist."
By virtue of Gephardt not being in the position to play "devil," said Ornstein, he’s had to take a back seat. "I actually think it would help him if Republicans were ripping him apart on a daily basis."
Republicans would find reason, too. Nestled in the heart of "Middle America," Gephardt's district has always been a Democratic stronghold, but it has been trending somewhat Republican recently.
Missouri State Rep. Catherine S. Enz is hoping to capitalize on the progress of Republican candidate William Federer, who in the last two elections lost to Gephardt by 18 percent and 14 percent respectively, but who kept Gephardt below 60 percent support.
Though redistricting has actually strengthened Gephardt's Democratic-leaning district in the southern St. Louis suburbs, Enz is trying to bank on Gephardt's twisting from a conservative Midwest Democrat to a left-wing labor hero, said one Enz supporter.
"Certainly she'll vote for working families, but she’ll do so in a much less extreme way," offered Scott Baker, communications director for the Missouri Republican Nationa Committee.
Gephardt, who did not respond to requests for an interview, began his career as a local alderman in 1971 and was first elected to the U.S. House in 1976 on a platform of smaller government and lower taxes. In those early years, he actually supported these themes, and even endorsed President Reagan's landmark tax cut plan in 1981. He was also pro-life, anti-busing and opposed raising the minimum wage.
But when the presidential bug bit Gephardt in 1986, he worked to win over his party's rank and file and and reversed many of his earlier views. He began working actively to get labor union backing and campaigned against international trade treaties like NAFTA and GATT, though he later endorsed the latter. He supported President Clinton's failed national health care plan and opposed any Republican push for tax cuts.
His strategies varied, as did his successes throughout the last decade. He attempted to run for president in 1988 and lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis, returning to the House to regroup and rebuild. He served as majority leader, and has been minority leader since Republicans took the House in 1994.
After the election of President Bush in 2000, he became more strident in his advocacy for left-of-center policies and fought hard against Bush's tax plan. "This is a bill that turns its back on fiscal responsibility," he complained last June. "This bill fails the American people."
While his rhetoric that the tax cut serves the rich and ignores working families no doubt resonates with much of the American public, political observers say much of Gephardt's big labor talk may have run its course.
"I think there may have been some fatigue. Gephardt [is] always talking 'working families, working families,'" said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report,
Observers do agree on one thing — it will be tough defeating his dynamo campaigning style that comes with being a career politician.