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Gephardt Kickoff Two Weeks Away

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) is planning to formally announce his bid for president on Feb. 19, according to numerous sources within the Democratic Caucus, even as he continues efforts to win over fellow House Members, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). While Gephardt insiders wouldn’t confirm the official roll-out date for the campaign, several key Democratic leadership sources said they’ve been told the Missouri lawmaker intends to declare his candidacy two weeks from today in St. Louis. (Gephardt is one of at least five Democrats jockeying for the nomination.)

“He’s planning a major announcement the week of the 17th in St. Louis,” said one senior Democratic aide.

A Gephardt adviser, however, refused to confirm any announcement schedule.

“Plans are still in the works. We aren’t ready to talk about them until they are finalized,” the aide said.

Democratic insiders said that shortly after kicking off the campaign, Gephardt is expected to follow quickly with an announcement of support from a sizable slate of House Democrats. Already, a handful of Members have publicly jumped on board, while others are privately backing their former leader.

For the past several weeks Gephardt has been talking and meeting with Members throughout the Caucus — including his successor, Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — to shore up support for his White House bid.

Pelosi’s office declined to comment, but one leadership aide said presidential hopefuls Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), John Edwards (D-N.C.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) have also approached the Minority Leader for support. The aide added that Pelosi “at some point will make an endorsement, but not right away.”

But another senior Democratic staffer not affiliated with the Minority Leader said it’s increasingly likely that Gephardt will win Pelosi’s support, even though the two have not always seen eye to eye. That aide said Gephardt should get her endorsement unless Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a longtime Pelosi ally, gets in the race. Pelosi attended college with Dodd’s sister.

“My sense is she’s very heavily leaning toward Gephardt, but she has a very close relationship with Chris Dodd,” said the aide.

Hoyer, while a longtime friend and ally of Gephardt’s, has yet to make public his political leanings for 2004. Menendez, on the other hand, remains uncommitted and is unlikely to endorse in the primary, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

Gephardt, the only House Member in the race, is one of at least five Democrats pursuing a 2004 presidential bid, including Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Gephardt also ran for president in 1988, but failed to capture the Democratic nomination.

Those inside the Gephardt campaign have been mum about the Missouri lawmaker’s plans but assure he is on track to mount a formidable bid. Gephardt formed a presidential exploratory committee in early January.

“We’re doing fine,” said the adviser. “Things are going well and we’ve done this before. Gephardt has just started more actively cultivating support of Members and he will continue to do that in the hopes of having a lot of support.”

But one Democratic insider questioned how well Gephardt was doing rallying backers, saying that for the time being, “Everyone is keeping their powder dry.”

In addition to helping secure supporters within the House, Pelosi would be viewed as a plum endorsement for any presidential hopeful. The highest-ranking female in Congress, she has wide-reaching support in both the Democratic Caucus and the party’s liberal base and brings exceptional fundraising abilities.

“They are talking to her,” acknowledged a Democratic leadership aide of the presidential candidates. “She thinks they are all qualified.”

Several Democratic aides said it seems likely Pelosi will ultimately align with Gephardt because of their long-standing House relationship.

Pelosi has helped Gephardt during his transition out of leadership by securing for him an office in the Capitol and steering Congressional funds to keep several of his key staffers on the House payroll. He, on the other hand, has helped Pelosi with her leadership staffing, and for a decade has boosted House Democrats in general by raising money and traveling for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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