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Gephardt’s Low-Key Path to VP

Even as Rep. Richard Gephardt sees his name mentioned in the top tier of Democratic vice presidential speculation, the Missouri Democrat continues to shy away from the spotlight and keep a relatively low profile both nationally and in Washington.

Gephardt, a 28-year veteran of the House, has granted few interviews and done little to promote himself as a possible running mate to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). The self-effacing approach to the job — which his allies say he would gladly accept — follows Gephardt’s character, and in many ways paints stark contrast to another possible Kerry pick, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).

While Gephardt hasn’t been sitting idly by while Kerry woos voters, Edwards has flooded his schedule with a series of national appearances and events on behalf of the presidential hopeful and Senate candidates.

Gephardt, meanwhile, has kept his activity on behalf of Kerry focused, largely in his Midwestern backyard. The one-time presidential hopeful himself also has yet to do many appearances for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and his fellow House candidates.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), a Gephardt ally who co-chaired his presidential campaign, said while his friend has raised money and campaigned for Kerry whenever asked, Gephardt isn’t in the business of campaigning for the vice presidency.

“I don’t think there’s any overt attempt on Gephardt’s part to jockey for this vice presidential slot,” Clay said. “It’s more of a steady march to the position.”

Privately, Democratic aides and Members say Gephardt’s approach to the No. 2 job is that of a quieter appeal, saying he’s comfortable with the idea that his strong ties to labor and the battleground Midwestern states and long-standing record in Congress speak for themselves.

“I don’t think he has chosen to play a lower profile,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “He’s keeping a targeted, strategic and specific profile. I think he’s just been more strategic.”

Either way, those attributes may be playing in his favor. Word recently leaked that the former House Minority Leader, Edwards and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack are being vetted by the Kerry campaign for VP.

“He doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone,” said one former Gephardt staffer. “His record will be judged for itself. He’s been a successful fundraiser and candidate, he’s helped people get elected. He’d be a strong No. 2. He’s a definite team player.”

Rep. Robert Matsui, chairman of the DCCC and another Gephardt loyalist, said the Missourian is “a known quantity” after a career in public life and doesn’t need to show himself off by doing national press interviews advertising his accomplishments.

The DCCC chairman added that Gephardt is handling the running-mate sweepstakes in the same way that most people would who are under consideration.

“Most vice presidential hopefuls want to be helpful, but those on the short list pretty much keep a reasonably low profile,” Matsui said.

“Gephardt doesn’t need to audition for this,” added a House Democratic leadership aide.

One reason for that is the multitude of former Gephardt staffers now with the Kerry campaign, including deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf and spokeswoman Kim Molstre.

While Gephardt initially agreed to do a host of activities for the DCCC and House candidates, he has so far headlined just two events, including the committee’s March kickoff of the “Campaign for a New Majority.” DCCC officials say they haven’t asked Gephardt to participate in many events so far, but add that he would be called upon to do more later.

“We’re the ones who are waiting,” said a DCCC official. “We’ll definitely be tapping him as a resource in the future.”

On behalf of Kerry, Gephardt has kept a very targeted schedule, so far participating in about a dozen events, fundraisers or press opportunities for the candidate, many in his home state.

Specifically, Gephardt conducted a few conference calls with the press for Kerry and made a handful of appearances, delivered speeches and raised money in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. A darling of organized labor, he also joined Kerry in Las Vegas over the weekend for the Teamsters unity rally and earned the rousing endorsement for the second spot on the ticket from Teamster’s head James Hoffa Jr.

Loren Raszick, Gephardt’s spokeswoman, said her boss believes Kerry is “a great candidate and he wants to do everything he can to help.”

“Dick Gephardt wants John Kerry to be president,” she said. “He’ll do whatever he can to make that happen. He’s always said this is not about him, but the country’s future. He believes this is the most important election of his lifetime.”

Since returning to Congress after abandoning his own presidential ambitions in January, Gephardt has largely shunned the limelight on Capitol Hill. He holds no committee assignments, and while he still votes, he does little else to attract attention.

Matsui said while many might not see it, Gephardt is participating behind the scenes by lending advice to Members on the floor and to threatened lawmakers facing tough re-elections.

“It’s true he’s not been active on the floor, but behind the rail he has been” involved, Matsui said.

Although some anticipate Gephardt will increase his activity if he is passed over as Kerry’s running mate, others insist the former Minority Leader will play out his final months in Congress quietly.

“He has definitely flown below the radar and my guess is he will continue to do so,” said one well-placed House Democratic staffer.

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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