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Cracks in Gephardt Support?

With Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) set to unveil support from 10 House Members on Thursday, Rep. Richard Gephardt’s rivals in the presidential race are questioning the Missouri Democrat’s chances of securing a high level of backing from the body he has served in since 1976.

One Democratic strategist not aligned with any presidential candidate said that while “a lot of Members do feel real loyalty to Dick … their first loyalty is to themselves and so they will all be making hard-headed assessments about his viability.”

But an adviser to a rival campaign painted the situation much more negatively, saying, “While it may be too early to say that Gephardt’s campaign is crumbling, the cracks are definitely showing.”

Gephardt’s close relations with his House colleagues have long been considered an essential building block in his second presidential bid; his aides insist that he remains well-positioned to secure significant backing among his colleagues.

“We’ll have more [Member endorsements] than anybody,” predicted a Gephardt adviser. “We’re not in a[n] [endorsement] race here. We’re not in any hurry to put out a list.”

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), one of the national co-chairmen of the Gephardt effort, said that if the presidential race was decided by House supporters, Gephardt would win hands down. He added that Gephardt is working on shoring up as much backing as possible, and taking his time.

“Let’s face it, there’s 10 months to the primary, that’s a lot of time in politics,” Clay said. “There’s no concern over a list. If we want to match [Lieberman’s] list, Gephardt would win.”

Despite the Gephardt team’s confidence, it is clear the other would-be nominees are not planning to cede House support to the Missouri lawmaker and view any inroads they can make among Members as a direct slap at him.

With the first-quarter fundraising race now complete, political observers see the endorsement game as the next major step in generating excitement and support for the caucuses and primaries early next year.

“After you do the first money go-around, the next place to generate momentum is the endorsements,” said one unaffiliated strategist.

And, aside from the symbolic significance of Member endorsements, they could potentially have a more practical impact if the nomination goes to a convention fight.

Each Member is a superdelegate to the convention, meaning that they each have a vote in the actual nominating process, but unlike most regular delegates are not bound to support any one candidate.

Lieberman will trot out his new supporters at a press conference Thursday that will include home-state Reps. Rosa DeLauro and John Larson as well as California Reps. Ellen Tauscher and Cal Dooley. Both DeLauro and Tauscher were considered close allies of Gephardt.

“It is heartening that Senator Lieberman is getting the support of a number of colleagues in the House of Representatives when so many other contenders serve in the U.S. Congress,” said Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera.

One senior Democratic House aide, however, argued that Lieberman’s endorsements are a gambit designed to reinvigorate a campaign “on life support.”

Lieberman’s announcement comes just days after Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was backed by all six Democratic Members from the Tar Heel State.

Lieberman and Edwards are two of the four Senators pursuing the nomination.

Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) are in the mix as well. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) is also running.

On the House side, Gephardt is joined by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) in the race. Kucinich, a dark horse running largely on his anti-war stance, said he’s done little to court his colleagues.

“I have not talked to a single Member of Congress at this point about my campaign,” he said. “I understand the decision is brought about after a lot of thought and after a campaign develops.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Spokesmen for their campaigns did not return calls for comment.

Kerry so far has secured the backing of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as well as Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.). He hosted the 11 Members of the Massachusetts delegation at his Georgetown home in February for a strategy session.

Publicly, Reps. John Spratt (S.C.), Robert Matsui (Calif.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.), Patrick Kennedy (R.I.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and John Murtha (Pa.) have lent their support to Gephardt’s efforts. Spratt, assistant to the Minority Leader, Matsui, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Murtha are all considered powerhouses within the Caucus. Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), an influential black Congressman from a key early primary state, is also expected to land in Gephardt’s camp.

Getting early commitments from others in the Congressional Black Caucus could prove more difficult for Gephardt, however, given the presence of two black Democrats in the field. The CBC is not expected to endorse any candidate.

During his 1988 presidential campaign, Gephardt had the support of 59 Members. After 15 additional years in the House, including eight years as leader of his party, that number is seen as the floor in the expectation game.

“Dick has an advantage, he has relationships with these people,” said one Gephardt adviser. “He’s been calling these people for some time and will continue to do that in a systematic way.”

Gephardt allies argue that there is little reason to release a long list of Congressional supporters at this point.

Gephardt is focused on showing he’s not a “Washington insider,” according to a senior House Democratic aide, and proving his backing is widespread beyond the Beltway.

The scramble by the presidential wannabes to secure public support from Members follows an intense three-month fundraising race that culminated March 31, the end of the first quarter.

By all accounts that contest was won by Edwards, who raised $7.4 million in the first three months of the year. Kerry, who was widely expected to lead the field in fundraising, brought in $7 million.

Gephardt placed third overall with roughly $6 million raised, a total that included a transfer of $2.4 million from his Congressional campaign account.

Lieberman finished a disappointing fourth in the money chase with just $3 million raised, while Dean surprised many by raking in $2.6 million. Graham showed just over $1 million raised in the month he has been in the race.

Braun, Sharpton and Kucinich did not release their fundraising totals. Official reports are due at the Federal Election Commission on April 15.

Now that most of the candidates have plucked what is often referred to as the “low-hanging fruit” in their fundraising efforts, the backing of Members of Congress — each with their own fundraising base — is key in order to raise the roughly $15 million to $20 million the top-tier contenders are expected to need to win the nomination.

“Any sitting Member of Congress got to where he or she is in large part because [they] are the voice of [their] community,” said Cabrera. “Having that voice on your side makes it that much easier to make inroads in the community.”

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