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.
"I've had business people come up to me and say this plan makes sense," Gephardt claimed. "It is an expensive plan," he concedes, "and we'd have to get rid of the Bush tax cut to pay for it." That the voters would be willing to endorse a tax hike for more health-care benefits seems dicey at best. Oregon -- not exactly a hotbed of right-wingers -- offered its voters this choice last November, and they defeated it by a near 3-to-1 margin.
Gephardt will also have to offer a plan to combat terrorism, and it is here that he seems rather uncomfortable. In Davenport he only mentioned the war on terror in his stump speech at the end; in Dubuque and Bellevue it wasn't in the speeches at all, although he did talk about it in the question-and-answer period.
He vacillates between supporting President Bush and sounding like a '60s-style liberal. On the one hand he said, "I think we've got to do everything in our power to prevent further acts of terrorism. That's why I voted to deal with Iraq; it's why I voted to deal with Afghanistan." On the other, "We need to go at the root causes of terrorism like bad governance and poverty."
He faulted Bush for not getting U.N. and NATO support for the invasion of Iraq. How would Gephardt get their support? "You have to talk to them. You have to listen to them." Using sociological terms and proposing what sounds like a group-therapy session isn't likely to convince many voters that he's got what it takes to deal with the threat of terrorism.
However, that's getting ahead of ourselves. Gephardt has to win the nomination before he can move on to the general election, and sounding a bit more like Dean on foreign policy is not a bad way to appeal to primary voters.
Gephardt appears to be playing well the hand that was dealt to him after Dean came along and stole the deck. Bill Burton remarked, "After New Hampshire, it will probably be just Gephardt and Dean." Here's betting he's right.
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