Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has been courting Members through phone calls and a series of personal meetings, seeking their endorsement for his presidential bid, and is preparing to form a whip group of key House supporters to recruit more lawmakers to his cause.
Gephardt, the lone House Member currently in the running for his party’s presidential nomination, is seeking to capitalize on the relationships he fostered with his colleagues over his 26-year career.
The former party leader is “out there actively,” said one Democratic lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The time he is spending here, he’s basically talking to Members.”
“We’ve talked to a lot of people,” one top Gephardt adviser acknowledged. “He has commitments. He has relationships with a lot of people. I assume we’ll do pretty well, but we’re not going to get everybody.”
Publicly, Gephardt has so far won endorsements from Reps. John Spratt (S.C.), Robert Matsui (Calif.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.), Patrick Kennedy (R.I.), and Ike Skelton (Mo.).
A number of other influential Members, who were among Gephardt’s inner circle during his tenure as leader, are expected to publicly commit to the Missouri lawmaker shortly.
Even as Gephardt began to cultivate the seeds of support, however, other presidential candidates were attempting to sow the soil in his backyard.
Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) all met privately Wednesday with the New Democrat Coalition, a group of 74 House moderates, to outline their respective blueprints to win the nomination.
The sessions were the group’s chance to vet and prod the candidates to see if their “New Democrat” credentials are solid, according to one source who attended the meeting.
For the most part, the meeting devolved into a mutual admiration society, according to co-chairman Rep. Ron Kind (Wis.)
“Most [speakers] were preaching to the choir,” he said.
Gephardt’s focus on lining up the House Democratic Caucus behind his candidacy is part of a larger dual-pronged strategy designed to develop key fundraising outposts throughout the country while also piling up superdelegates who would support him at the 2004 Democratic convention.
“We want Members who are for him to be an active part of the campaign — help you put together a message and help you raise money, a whole host of things,” said the Gephardt adviser.
An unsigned memo received last week by a number of individuals who have backed Gephardt in the past claimed that the “Democratic Caucus is rife with members who have routinely raised over a million dollars in their districts and states.”
“Many of these donors and raisers are unique to House members, so when employed on Gephardt’s behalf [they] will yield not only significant revenue but also are sources of funding that other candidates will not be able to harvest,” the memo stated.
Kennedy recently held a fundraiser in Rhode Island for Gephardt in which some $60,000 was brought in, a high mark in a small state this early on, he said.
The Rhode Island lawmaker believes Gephardt, a Midwesterner who has adopted Iowa as his home away from home, will win the Hawkeye state’s primary and also capture New Hampshire, despite being seen as the underdog in the latter primary to Kerry, Lieberman and potentially even former Gov. Howard Dean (Vt.).
“I really believe he’ll be our nominee and our nominee will be the next president,” Kennedy said. “It’s my pleasure to be among the first to say, ‘I’m behind Dick.’”
Kennedy, former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he’s ready to help Gephardt corral support among his fellow Democrats. “I’m going to part of the whip team. I’ll be with him from top to bottom.”
Perhaps as important as the money Gephardt’s House colleagues can help raise, however, is their role as superdelegates at the party’s convention next summer.
Added to party rules during the 1984 presidential campaign, the pool of superdelegates is made up of House and Senate Members, governors, Democratic National Committee members and former elected officials.
Unlike delegates selected through each state’s caucus or primary, however, these superdelegates are not bound to support any one candidate.
Typically they have comprised roughly 20 percent of all delegates to the convention, or nearly 40 percent of the total needed to secure the nomination.
In 1984 they were crucial in former Vice President Walter Mondale’s nomination victory over hard-charging insurgent Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.).
Because in recent years the nominee has typically been selected long before the actual convention, however, superdelegates have come to be less important.
“Being a superdelegate doesn’t matter all that much,” said one former Democratic lawmaker.
Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for Kerry’s presidential bid, predicted that few if any superdelegates will back a candidate other than the one who wins their respective Congressional district or state in the primary process.
“Superdelegates are going to go with the Congressional district they represent,” he said.
Although the practical purpose of superdelegates’ support can be questioned, their symbolic importance should not be understated.
After spending nearly three decades in the House — 13 in a leadership capacity — Gephardt must show voters, as well as the Democratic donor and activist community, that he has the strong backing of those who know him best.
He is off to a solid start in that regard with public professions of support from senior Members like Matsui and Spratt.
Spratt is from a state with a crucial early primary, a ranking member on the Budget Committee and top assistant to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Matsui, meanwhile, is a top Democrat on Ways and Means Committee and a chief party fundraiser and strategist as the chairman of the DCCC.
“I endorsed him before I was given this job,” said Matsui. “My endorsement holds.”
Other Members who were intimately involved in Gephardt’s 1988 presidential bid — like Gordon — are once again playing an active role.
“I’m a soldier, I’ll do whatever he asks me to do,” Gordon said. “We’re going to try to gather other Members to the flock.”
Others considered likely be part of Gephardt’s inner circle include: Reps. Bob Brady (Pa.), John Murtha (Pa.), Carolyn McCarthy (N.Y.), Silvestre Reyes (Texas), John Tanner (Tenn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Robert Andrews (N.J.).
And, while Gephardt appears to be doing a solid job calling on his Caucus, there are potentially rough seas ahead.
Some Democrats are privately concerned whether, after Gephardt’s unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid and eight years of frustration in trying retake control of the House, he is the right person for the party to choose.
“The question for many of us is, ‘How are you going to win?’” said one Democratic lawmaker. “I have no doubt Dick Gephardt would have the ability to [serve] as president of the United States. The question is, ‘What’s your ability to win?’ That’s the major obstacle.”
Another former Democratic lawmaker said that a number of Members will seek “to avoid contact” with colleagues seeking their support for the presidency at this early stage.
“You don’t want to go jumping off cliffs for a guy who drops out in three months,” said the former legislator.
Gephardt may also struggle to secure endorsements from House allies who share state bases with other presidential hopefuls. That may mean some of Gephardt’s strongest House support will remain behind the scenes, sources said.
“It may be an easier decision for some Members down the road, but any Member with a colleague from their home state is going to be hard pressed to support Gephardt,” said a senior Democratic aide. “That’s not to say they won’t be working for him behind the scenes, but in terms of public endorsements, it might be difficult for people from North Carolina, Massachusetts or Vermont.”
The Gephardt camp and his allies dispute any speculation that he is perceived as anything but a potential nominee by his colleagues. And, they are quick to squelch talk that the campaign has been slow to get moving.
“We’ve just begun this process,” said a second Gephardt adviser. “This is the first time after he announced his exploratory committee that we’ve had a chance to communicate with Members, and Gephardt is committed to spending some time talking to people about what his campaign is going to be all about, what he plans to do in his campaign, and how he plans to win.”
Kennedy was even more ebullient in his assessment of Gephardt’s Congressional support.
“He’s got a national network and that’s right here in the House of Representatives,” Kennedy said. “This is an organization that a candidate for president dreams of.”
Nicole Duran contributed to this story.