The temperatures had dipped into the single digits, and a biting Iowa blizzard was on the way, but Representative Dick Gephardt found the reception inside the Baxter Community Center anything but frosty. Indeed, about a fifth of the town's 1,000-plus residents cheered loudly as the first candidate to visit this out-of-the-way burg blasted trade pacts and greedy corporations he said were exporting jobs and bankrupting Iowa's family farms.
While many Democratic insiders dismiss Gephardt's blue-collar populism as a relic of a bygone era, the Missouri congressman labors on. "We believe in loyalty," says Baxter Mayor Doug Bishop, a local United Auto Workers official. "One guy has been standing with us, and that's Dick Gephardt."
One Community Center at a Time
In politics, though, loyalty goes only so far. Despite Gephardt's decade as House Democratic leader, many activists have flocked to new warriors in their zeal to topple George W. Bush. Howard Dean has captured the fancy of the Internet generation, Iraq war foes, and white-collar unions. Retired General Wesley Clark is the nonpolitician with the buzz and a fast-fattening campaign kitty. Skepticism about Gephardt's second White House quest in 16 years is so strong that longtime ally John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, couldn't engineer a national labor endorsement from a federation divided between pro-Gephardt industrial unions and pro-Dean government and service employees. Still, Gephardt is fighting for survival one community center at a time. "If you're looking for the fresh face or the flavor of the month, I'm probably not your candidate," he repeats at stop after stop.
Iowa is Gephardt's first and last stand, and he knows it. He needs a big bounce out of the state's Jan. 19 caucuses to lift him into the top tier of finishers in the New Hampshire primary eight days later. "If he wins Iowa, he's in a position to get people to take a second look," says Democratic National Committee member James Zogby. Gephardt hopes to race past front-runner Dean on Feb. 3, when seven states, including South Carolina, Oklahoma, and his native Missouri hold contests. Then, with money flowing in to refill his depleted coffers, he would deliver the coup de gr?ce in the megastates of New York and California in early March. But as campaign manager Steve Murphy concedes: "For this scenario to come together, Dick Gephardt has to win in Iowa."
And such a triumph is far from certain. While the Missourian, thanks to a coalition of 17 industrial unions, has the best ground game in his neighboring state -- and has all but lived there for two years -- he has fallen behind Dean in recent polls. What's more, a Gephardt victory in Iowa could prove Pyrrhic: His sparse support and resources in the important states that follow could dull his momentum. "Even if he wins Iowa, there isn't much hope for him," concludes independent New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett.
The 62-year-old Gephardt is doing his best to prove the doubters wrong, and his campaign remains relentlessly "on message." Still, there's a growing sense among his friends in the Democratic Establishment that despite a powerful message, the milkman's son from St. Louis is too familiar and too identified with the old Washington crowd to lead the cyber-revolution of 2004. While voters rarely choose candidates because of another politician's endorsement, lining up backers isn't a completely pointless exercise. Endorsements can carry symbolic value: Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean on Jan. 6 argued that the support he has received from 2000 rivals Al Gore and Bill Bradley shows that he's a uniter, not a divider, for Democrats.
Candidates can also use endorsements to fill gaps. Dean, seeking to diversify his Internet-driven campaign, has zealously courted minority congressmen, snaring such prominent supporters as Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). Likewise, Wesley Clark boasts the backing of Harlem Representative Charles Rangel. But Dick Gephardt may have scored the biggest coup in an early showdown state when South Carolina's sole black congressman, James Clyburn, signed on. Clyburn is lending Gephardt his well-oiled political machine, has cut a TV ad, and will record phone messages on Gephardt's behalf.
But endorsements that add value are still exceptions. Senator John Kerry scored in New Hampshire when popular former Governor Jeanne Shaheen joined his campaign. But neither Shaheen's support nor her organization will be enough to save Kerry.