Even as Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) prepares to formally announce a bid for president this week, a pair of outspoken House liberals are letting it be known they’re still interested in joining him in the field.
Two Ohio House Members, Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, are entertaining getting into what’s becoming a crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. Both are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a leftist coalition of House Democrats.
Kucinich, co-chairman of the progressive group and a leading opponent of a war with Iraq, is likely to run, several House Democratic insiders said, adding that announcement could come this week.
“He’s been spending a lot of time in Iowa, and that’s always a good sign” that he is running, said one Democratic Member.
A Democratic aide with ties to the progressive caucus said Kucinich, through his push to stop a war against Iraq, “has been making a good case and providing an important voice. There’s no question he’s been able to build a national movement around that issue.”
Kaptur, who briefly ran for Minority Leader last fall, said Friday it’s not likely she’d get in the race formally, but is trying to be involved enough to get the top candidates to adopt her agenda. She said she’s accepting speaking engagements in early primary states to talk about her pet issues of reducing campaign spending, creating energy independence built on sustainable and renewable resources and cutting back U.S. financial dependence on foreign countries.
“People are asking me” about running, Kaptur said, acknowledging: “Surely I would be the darkest of the dark horses.”
Gephardt will officially enter the 2004 race on Wednesday at an event in St. Louis, the area he’s represented for 26 years in Congress. He will then continue his launch with stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, all critical states in capturing the Democratic nomination.
“He’s going to talk a lot about health care — which will be one of his major focuses in the campaign — and he plans to also talk about trade and the economy,” said one Gephardt adviser of the announcement.
“We’ve been working hard to put together a hefty list of supporters and raise the money needed to run this campaign the way Gephardt wants to in a very aggressive fashion,” the adviser added.
“We are going at it full force.”
The former House Minority Leader will be joined by at least one House ally on his kickoff tour — Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) — at an event Friday in Florence, S.C. Other Members may join Gephardt elsewhere, the adviser said.
Gephardt has been working behind the scenes for months to shore up support among his fellow House colleagues, and Democratic insiders speculate he will roll out a long list of House backers in the coming weeks.
One senior Democratic aide stressed that Gephardt, while he wants Member endorsements, wanted his campaign unveiling to present the Missouri lawmaker from an outside-the-Beltway perspective, rather than as a “Washington insider.”
The staffer added that Gephardt’s goal is not to get Member support to justify his candidacy, but rather to win Member backing to enhance his position in individual states, which would translate into the fundraising and grassroots base he needs.
“It has a big impact when he comes into a state to raise money and get party support — that’s where he’s going with this,” the aide said.
With his formal launch on Wednesday, Gephardt will be the first House Member to formally enter the White House sweepstakes. Other Democrats running are former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.).
Others eyeing runs are former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.).
Kucinich would likely compete most for support with Dean, who has positioned himself more to the left on the issue of war with Iraq, sources said. Gephardt, who has supported Bush on the war effort, is viewed as the labor candidate with a more moderate agenda.
The Democratic aide with ties to the progressive caucus said it remains unclear what kind of support Kucinich can build within Congress, saying: “He’s talked for a while about running for president, he certainly has views that people in the progressive caucus share. But it’s just too early to tell.
“Whether it will translate into the man on the street going out and voting for him over another candidate, I don’t know.”
Several other Democratic aides said they believe Kucinich will only appeal to a narrow spectrum of liberals. And he’s likely to get his Congressional backing from within a small wing of the House Democratic Caucus.
As one senior House Democrat characterized the likely support: “It would be minimal. It would be a liberal progressive element.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a fellow progressive caucus member, said Kucinich “could reinvigorate part of the Democratic base that feels disenfranchised,” particularly those voters who supported Green Party nominee Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential race.
“Dennis has a clear position on the issues of war and peace, trade, social programs, health care,” he added. “He would be someone who would have a lot of appeal.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a Kucinich ally who co-chairs the progressive caucus, was quick to praise a possible Kucinich bid, saying he “would be an exciting candidate” and would add substance to the debate if he were to get in the race. Lee was the lone vote against authorizing Bush to use force against the al Qaeda terrorist network in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Although Kucinich and Kaptur are required by state law to file for re-election by Jan. 2, 2004, Ohio does not have a law prohibiting federal candidates from running for both offices simultaneously. Under Missouri law, Gephardt would be prevented from running for re-election if he were to win the presidential nomination.
However, he announced in January that he would not seek another term in the House.
Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.