Illustration by Ismael Roldan

It’s an all-or-nothing day for Dick Gephardt on January 19, when Iowa Democrats go to their caucuses to make their choice for president. Nothing less than a first-place finish in the state he won in 1988 will allow Gephardt’s sputtering campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to continue. Even his campaign manager has conceded to the Washington Post that if Gephardt fails to prevail in Iowa, he won’t be able to raise enough money for the cash-strapped Missouri congressman to pursue much further his decades-old dream of occupying the White House. Since Gephardt has already forsworn re-election to his St. Louis–area House seat, even a second-place showing in Iowa to a victorious Howard Dean would put an end to his political career.

It might have been different. If Gephardt had only had the courage to lead the House Democrats in opposition to George Bush’s war in Iraq, the 60 percent of Democratic primary voters who polls show are still opposed to that war might have embraced the former House minority leader enthusiastically, and Dean might never have taken off the way he has.

But Gephardt, to the surprise of his House Democratic colleagues, in October 2002 became the co-author of the resolution giving Bush a blank check for war in Iraq, and raced to the White House Rose Garden to join Joe Lieberman in giving bipartisan cover to Bush’s war. In so doing, Gephardt misread both the Democratic base and his own House colleagues — a large majority of whom, after an avalanche of anti-war protests from their constituents, voted 126-79 against the invasion of Iraq.

Even Gephardt’s hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, denounced the way Gephardt “acceded to the drums of war,” adding that he’d “undermined efforts in the Senate to limit the war authority to disarmament rather than regime change.” In that October 3, 2002, editorial, the paper underscored that “as recently as two weeks ago [Gephardt] said that Mr. Bush was not justified in waging war to overthrow Saddam, only in disarming him — a position exactly in line with the Biden-Lugar resolution he has torpedoed.”

This sort of opportunism has, in fact, been the hallmark of Gephardt’s career ever since 1986. That was the year the conservative Gephardt, after only five terms in Congress, began planning his first presidential run — and since then the man who was a founder and former chairman of the ‰ Democratic Leadership Council (the organization set up to curb and purge the party’s liberal-left wing) has undergone more political face-lifts than Michael Jackson.

Gun control? Gephardt used to be a Democratic poster boy for the NRA, getting a consistent “A” rating from the gun lobby for his ardent opposition to any form of gun control. In 1986, he switched his positions, and his NRA grade dropped to a D. Since 1994, he’s gotten F’s. But he still urged President Clinton to drop the assault-weapons ban from his 1994 crime bill.

Tax cuts? In 1981 he voted for the huge Reagan tax cut that a majority of his party opposed. In 1991, Gephardt said he supported cutting taxes “at almost any cost.” Now, of course, a centerpiece of his campaign this year has been opposition to Bush’s tax cuts.

Abortion? Gephardt passionately used to favor a right-to-life amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and consistently voted against abortion in the House.

Then, as U.S. News and World Report described it in 1988, “Gephardt asked several top Democratic operatives if he needed to change his stance in order to be a viable presidential candidate.” When told he did, Gephardt followed the ops’ advice and switched, to parade from then till now as a firm supporter of a woman’s right to choose and Roe v. Wade — even though he’s continued to vote to ban partial-birth abortions (seven times in recent years, including voting twice to override a Clinton veto of the ban, and voting for a Republican version of the ban that excluded any exception for the health of the woman). As recently as 2002, he voted against forbidding federal-funding discrimination against health agencies that provide abortion information.

The environment? Before 1986, Gephardt scored low on the scorecards of the League of Conservation Voters and other enviro groups. He repeatedly voted in favor of nuclear power (a no-no for enviros). As recently as 1991, he declared that he’d support drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve “if it’s done correctly.” Ten years later, sensing Republican vulnerability for failing to protect Mother Nature, Gephardt thundered that blocking drilling in the Arctic refuge was “the most important environmental issue of this Congress.” And while his most recent pro-environmental scorecards are in the 90s, he still keeps voting against clean air through higher fuel-efficiency standards (which are anathema to Gephardt’s pals in organized labor). At the same time, in this year’s campaign he proposes “a program that will actually convert this country to hydrogen fuel-cell cars” and an “aggressive new Apollo project” of tax cuts to promote alternative energy sources.

The New York Times’ Robin Toner, in a Gephardt profile last November, wrote that “he’s the paradigmatic congressional Democrat — too tactical and attuned to the polls.” And his long role as a Washington insider who frequently lapses into wooden Congress-speak in debates and interviews has hardly inflamed the electorate. Gephardt was asked by the moderator of a South Carolina debate among the Democratic hopefuls: “People fear that your campaign is like Bob Dole, a creature of Congress, who has been around the national track one too many times.” Gephardt’s response (typical of his stump speeches):

“If you’re looking for the fresh face, I’m probably not your candidate. If you’re looking for somebody that has real experience over 27 years in the House, 13 years as Democratic leader . . . well, I may be your candidate. I’ll say one other thing. The fight for working families is in my bones. My dad was a Teamster and a milk-truck driver in St. Louis. He didn’t get through high school. My mother, who is now 95, was a secretary. She didn’t get through high school either. But they fought hard to give me every opportunity a person could have. I feel I’m the example of the American Dream. So when I’m in that Oval Office, I’m going to try to do things for people like my parents, who are the people that have made this country great. I think it’s time we had a president like that again.”

It’s that kind of talk, combined with a strong pro-labor voting record and his opposition to NAFTA and the fast-track trade-with-China deal, that has garnered Gephardt the endorsement of 21 international unions, most of them from the building trades and the shrinking industrial unions of the rust belt. But two of the nation’s largest and growing unions — the Service Employees and the State, County, and Municipal Employees — have undercut Gephardt’s claim to be labor’s candidate by endorsing Dean. And while the unions supporting Gephardt have sent some 200 staffers into Iowa to pull out pro-Gephardt voters for the caucuses, the Service Employees has ponied up a cool $1 million for pro-Dean Iowa TV ads — and genuine left-populist Dennis Kucinich has further nibbled away at Gephardt’s union base in Iowa, perhaps enough to decide a close election.

The latest Zogby daily tracking polls in Iowa show Gephardt and Dean in a relatively tight contest for first place, with Dean having the edge. Gephardt was stagnant for the last few days at 23 percent, while Dean had moved up each day to 28. But polls are misleading in a caucus state like Iowa — especially since caucus mavens there are predicting a turnout double that of 2000. That means scads of new voters who aren’t in the polls of “likely caucus goers” (which target previous attendees) may overwhelm Gephardt’s aging labor base.

But even if Gephardt wins Iowa, where can he go from there to score another win? He’s running a distant fifth in New Hampshire, and isn’t ahead in any poll in the states that vote February 7. Gephardt’s strategists have targeted Michigan, one of the few states in which they’ve put on a significant TV campaign. But Dean got a major boost when Michigan Democrats adopted voting by Internet as well as at the polls — and any Gephardt bounce if he manages to squeak out a win in Iowa will be diluted by the fact that Michiganders have already been able to cast votes by Internet since the beginning of the year when Dean was at the height of his popularity, giving the Vermonter a comfortable cushion against an unexpected late Gephardt surge. (One Michigan labor pol I talked to this week kept referring to Gephardt as “Dead Dick.”)

In any case, Iowa is far from a guarantee of being nominated. Just ask the man who won that state 16 years ago: Dick Gephardt.

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