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Clash of the titans
Will an Al Gore–Richard Gephardt presidential-primary fight ruin the Democrats in 2004?

APPROXIMATELY 190 PEOPLE came to hear House minority leader Richard Gephardt speak about US foreign policy to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on June 4. Foreign-policy bigwigs, including former NATO ambassador Bob Hunter and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Admiral William Crowe, attended the event, as did key opinion leaders such as Ronald Brownstein of the LA Times and top producers of CNN’s Inside Politics.

In his speech, Gephardt came out forcefully in favor of deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who, he said, "survives by repressing his people and feeding on a cult of victimization." The Missouri congressman’s declaration was clear and forceful. "I stand ready to work with this administration to build an effective policy to terminate the threat posed by this regime."

The speech was important because it staked out new territory for Gephardt (he also reiterated his strong support for Israel’s war on terror, which he had previously expressed at a pro-Israel rally in Washington), on an issue that anyone who wants to run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination will have to face. Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who’s certain to run, has been content to define the war on terrorism as a law-enforcement and intelligence effort. The other likely candidates — North Carolina senator John Edwards and Vermont governor Howard Dean — haven’t had much to say publicly about President Bush’s campaign for a "regime change" in Iraq. It's not yet clear where Al Gore stands on the issue, and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, who shares Gephardt’s hawkish views on Iraq, will run only if Gore sits out 2004.

All that said, Gephardt’s speech was most likely targeted to only one man, who wasn’t even there and hasn't even thrown his own hat into the ring: former vice-president Al Gore. The real message of Gephardt’s address was this: I am just as able to handle foreign policy as any potential candidate in the 2004 race, especially Gore. And I won’t screw this issue up the way Gore did.

After all, Gore was one of two Senate Democrats (Lieberman was the other) to vote in favor of the 1991 Gulf War, and this is a legacy with which every candidate in 2004 will have to contend. But as vice-president, he did little to push Saddam Hussein from power. As Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf put it, Gephardt’s speech was "a shot at Gore." "It’s a way to show strength and to make Gore look weak," says Sheinkopf. "It’s part of a strategic imperative to keep Gore out and for Gephardt to move a little bit to the right." (As vice-president, Gore did little to push Saddam Hussein from power. In 1993, he sent a letter to the Iraqi National Congress, a democratic Iraqi opposition group, promising US support for its work. But in 1996, Gore said nothing publicly when Hussein ordered tanks into North Iraq — a move that effectively ended the nascent Iraqi opposition movement.)

The strength of his June 4 speech offered yet another sign that Gephardt, who is working furiously to help the Democrats retake the House in the November elections, is also furtively laying the groundwork for a presidential run. As Gephardt’s allies are quick to point out, he has been to Iowa twice in the last year and to New Hampshire three times. Democratic fundraiser Alan Solomont, the former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, quietly hosted a group of 30 for Gephardt in his Weston home in May. Regardless of how forcefully members of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation disavow the minority leader’s interest in the White House — as did many of them, even off the record, at the state Democratic convention last week — don’t believe it. Gephardt’s got his eyes on the country’s top political job once again.

His biggest obstacle? Gore. For Gephardt, that's a bitter pill to swallow. The two men's records and political careers are so similar that if both run, they nearly cancel each other out; and that has dogged the House minority leader's ambitions in the past. Beyond that — and this is the part that has political junkies in a tizzy (one described a primary contest between the two as "a mud-wrestling rematch") — they just plain don’t like each other.

RIGHT NOW, Gephardt’s running for president is too much for House Democrats to consider. They’re all focused on regaining the House: at last week’s state Democratic convention, in Worcester, Malden congressman Ed Markey — the dean of the Massachusetts delegation — distributed a flyer listing the wartime elections in which the party out of power has regained House seats. So if Gephardt is seen as pushing too hard for a presidential run, it’ll weaken his ability to help the Democrats in the November mid-term elections.

Officially, he hasn’t said a word indicating that he is running for president. House aides point reporters to his standing comment, which likens his position to that of St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. "If Kurt Warner was on the one-yard line, he’d better be worried about getting across the one-yard line," said Gephardt, on an Iowa news program. "And that really is the way I see it. I want to win the House back."

Luckily for Gephardt, many of the things he’s doing as part of that effort — visiting congressional districts across the country, helping other Democrats raise money for their campaigns — are also things that presidential candidates must do. That said, his visits to Iowa and New Hampshire have included fairly conspicuous presidential-campaign-style activities. In Iowa, for example, he helped raise money for a state-senate candidate, a former United Auto Workers leader who helped Gephardt in the run-up to the 1987 Iowa caucuses. And a recent trip to New Hampshire fueled presidential speculation: The Concord Monitor captioned a photo of Gephardt touring Concord with congressional candidate Katrina Swett with the words, "Gephardt is rumored to be thinking about a run for president in 2004."

Besides, if the Democrats recapture the House in November, Gephardt will become the House Speaker, putting him in a great position to raise money nationally. As the congressional Democratic leader, he’s already in good shape to raise money; but attaining the Speakership would vault him to another level. Gephardt lacked such stand-out status in 1988, the last time he made a presidential bid, when he was just one of four candidates from Congress (Gore and Senators Gary Hart and Paul Simon were the other three) seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

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Issue Date: June 13 - 20, 2002
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