Washington Prowler

Richard Proves Tough

Gephardt shows heart, pluck, guile. Plus: A major Senate Democrat surrender.

By 3.10.03

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ON THE MEND
Sen. John Kerry had the big mo going for him until he took time out for his prostate problems. Now it appears Rep. Dick Gephardt is reaping the rewards for staying relatively healthy in the early stages of the Democratic primary race. Gephardt's move toward a partial hold on frontrunner status probably can be pegged to his private audience with AFL-CIO leadership in Florida in late February. While other Democrats who met with organized labor leaders down there got some face time, it was only Gephardt who got to meet with all of the leadership.

"When everyone, The Prowler included, was saying labor was going to jump ship on Gephardt, we didn't panic. We knew the score," says a Gephardt staffer on Capitol Hill. "Guys like John Edwards are trying to sound like a populist. The people that matter know Rep. Gephardt is a populist."

Gephardt has hit the populist tones hard of late, though without withdrawing support for the Bush Administration's push in Iraq. And he's also hit the road, spending time in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and New York. With Kerry on the mend and keeping a lower profile, it has allowed Gephardt to move into the small group of frontrunners, joining Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

And he seems to be playing smart. According to several Gephardt sources, he's been lobbied by supporters to walk away from his Iraq position. "The liberals have given him plenty of cover for this," says one Gephardt backer. "Everywhere he goes he's hearing the protesters, he's being lobbied on this issue constantly. He could easily pull back on his support citing the mood of his constituents and the American public. But he probably won't."

ON THE FRITZ
Sen. Jon Corzine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has quietly begun looking for a candidate in South Carolina to step in if Sen. Fritz Hollings, as expected, announces he is not running for re-election. Hollings has seen his home state run over by the Republican Party, and the thinking is that he is no mood to raise the $8 million many in Washington think he would need to run a full campaign.

Compounding Democrats' problems is that there does not appear to be anyone remotely prepared to step into the race for them. "It's pretty bad," said one Democratic National Committee staffer. "We'll find someone, but you already get the sense this might be one open seat we're going to give up on before it even gets started."

Democrats lost one tactical tool when they lost the governor's mansion in South Carolina. So even if Hollings, who'll turn 82 next January 1, ran for the good of the party and won and sought to only serve a year, he couldn't resign because a Republican would be appointed to the seat.

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