IOWA — Some observers refer to the eastern portion of the state that follows the Mississippi River as the blue-collar basin. It’s a union heavy region, dotted with that great monument to lost jobs, the riverboat casino. It is here that Representative Dick Gephardt seems very at ease.
At meetings in Davenport, Bellevue, and Dubuque, the union members respond warmly to Gephardt. Granted, he throws them a lot of red meat: NAFTA represents “a race to the bottom trade policy,” and results in “human exploitation.”
None of the events look at all like the excitement of a Howard Dean event, yet there is a palpable, if quiet, enthusiasm that permeates all of the crowds (in most cases standing-room-only) that come to these events. These are Gephardt’s people.
Little wonder then that recent polls in Iowa show Gephardt has regained the lead from Howard Dean. However, the former minority leader is expected to win in this state, so a victory in the caucuses won’t be any surprise. The question is whether the Gephardt campaign can command a large following beyond the ethanol state.
Bill Burton, Gephardt’s spokesman in Iowa, is optimistic that it can. “We’ve got some good union states coming up right after New Hampshire, including South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Michigan,” he says. When asked about AFSCME’s and SEIU’s endorsement of Dean, Burton seems nonchalant: “We’ve got 21 union endorsements, far more than any other candidate. Among those we have the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, which is very good for us in Michigan.”
And he has a point. If union members elsewhere respond as well to Gephardt as they do here, it will certainly give him a leg up in many of the states that follow New Hampshire in the primary season.
But Gephardt’s union appeal may not be enough to help him emerge as the serious challenge to Dean. A woman named Karen at the event in Davenport hit on some of the limitations of Gephardt’s union support. Describing herself as a stay-at-home-mom Democrat, she said she was “shopping around for a candidate.”
Thus far, she was most impressed with Dean and John Kerry, although she criticized Dean’s approach as “kitschy.” Karen attended the Gephardt event because she wanted to see if he “could appeal outside the unions. You can’t win with only union people. He has to generate a message that is broad enough.”
On Saturday Gephardt was definitely trying to broaden his appeal among primary Democrats. The Dean-style Bush bashing was on display. To wit:
• “I’ve served with five presidents. He’s by far the worst. I’m nostalgic for Ronald Reagan. It is that bad. I’m not exaggerating.”
• “The only way Leave-No-Child behind works is to leave George Bush behind.”
• Bush “is arrogant. He’s a cowboy.”
• “If you’d been meeting with Bush every week since September 11, you’d be running for president too.”
Gephardt is at his best when talking about health-care and trade, but he seems increasingly comfortable with his anti-Bush shtick. If it gets even better (i.e., harsher and more shrill) than it was last Saturday, he could steal away some of Dean’s hard-core anti-Bushites. That, combined with his union support, and he could easily give Dean heartburn.
The CW among pundits is that if Gephardt could win in the primaries he would be a much better candidate than Dean for the general. But Saturday didn’t do much to support this belief. It is likely at this point that Gephardt would hinge his general election campaign on his lavish health-care plan.
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