Weather Vane

Gephardt tries to reinvent himself -- again

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Dick Gephardt, the milkman's son, had barely finished his "It's the economy stupid, part deux" speech, announcing his presidential candidacy, when Mariano Favazza started to press the flesh at Mason Elementary.

Favazza, the St. Louis City Circuit Court clerk and one of several announced candidates for Gephardt's congressional seat, saw nothing wrong or unseemly about working somebody else's crowd while the officeholder's body was still warm and in the room.

"He's moved on to another job," Favazza says, "and I'm on to another one myself."

Favazza is taking Gephardt at his word when the congressman says that this is his final term after almost 26 years spent serving Missouri's 3rd District. Gephardt says he won't run again, whether or not he gets the Democratic Party nomination for president.

That announcement set off a scramble for the seat, but political junkies say there's a strong possibility that Gephardt will pull a Bob Dole and resign during the campaign to ensure that a political ally gets his job. That would open several plotlines, including one that has the congressman's Svengali, Joyce Aboussie, pushing for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay to follow in her boss' footsteps. If Gephardt resigns early, there would be no primary election, only a special general election. The Democratic and Republican parties would choose their nominees on the basis of a vote by each party's committeepeople, weighted in accordance with the turnout in the last gubernatorial election.

In that scenario, the heavily Democratic areas of South St. Louis would give a candidate with Slay's power base a big advantage. South St. Louis County and Jefferson County, which tilt less Democratic than the city, would have less leverage in naming a Democratic candidate for a special election.

Slay, elected mayor just two years ago, does not dismiss speculation about a possible bid for Gephardt's seat should the congressman resign. "I haven't given that much thought. I haven't ruled it out. I'm focusing now on the challenges we have in the city of St. Louis," Slay says. "Right now I'm planning on running for mayor again in 2005."

Favazza, a Democrat but a fringe dweller of the party, dismisses speculation that Gephardt will resign early, before the fall 2004 election. "The man says he's not a quitter," says Favazza. "I'll take him at his word."

Taking Gephardt at his word, however, has proved a risky proposition.

Gephardt has swung back and forth on so many issues that he has an image of a politician with the stability of a weather vane. In the '80s, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban abortion and another that would have prohibited busing to integrate schools. Then he ran for president in 1988 and morphed into a pro-choice candidate who supported busing.

"That's going to plague him. It killed him in 1988," says Ken Warren, St. Louis University political-science professor and professional pollster. "Changing from pro-life to pro-choice will be used against him again. He's also had some flip-flops on farm issues, big farms versus small farms. He's had issues with labor and management over the years. He's flip-flopped on the Gulf War; in '91, he voted against it. It seemed to be more justified in '91."

Gephardt's speech announcing a second presidential bid -- the first was extinguished in the "Super Tuesday" primaries of 1988 -- made a passing reference to Bush's appointing "anti-choice" ideologues to the courts but made no other reference to abortion. There wasn't much in his speech about Iraq, either. The speech focused on the economy and stressed health insurance for all through tax credits, a universal pension plan, forgivable loans for teachers and energy independence.

In addition to abortion and busing, Gephardt's stance on armed intervention in Iraq has flipped. Back in '91, when Gephardt voted against the Persian Gulf War, the 1988 presidential campaign was in his rear-view mirror, so political considerations may have been less urgent. This time, he bolted in October from his Democratic colleagues, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, when President George W. Bush needed a high-profile Democrat to help cook up a congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq

Gephardt did this shortly after raising funds from the likes of Barbra Streisand, who wasn't thrilled with his cozying up to Bush. But what is Babs going to do, throw fundraisers for the anti-war Dennis Kucinich and Carol Mosely-Braun?

If, as Gephardt dreams, he gets the presidential nomination, it would be hard for Bush to make the attack on Iraq a campaign issue. How could Bush criticize Gephardt when the two agreed months before the military action started? In '91, Gephardt voted against Bush's father and ended up on the outside looking in at what was deemed by many a military and political success.

Assuming this sequel doesn't turn into a disaster, Gephardt can chime in with a "me, too" whenever Bush takes credit for liberating Mesopotamia. With the invasion of Iraq off-limits, there is one main topic left: the economy. If Gephardt wants to live in the White House, he can only hope the economy stays as dismal as it is.

"He's a long shot," says Warren. "He's not very dynamic, and he's fighting the perception that he's yesterday's news, that he's an inside-the-Beltway pol with no new ideas. He's never been able to campaign and rally regular people."

Either way, this is it for the 62-year-old Gephardt, a last hurrah.

He'll win the presidential nomination, get picked to be a vice-presidential candidate as an experienced Democratic version of Dick Cheney or lose out and retire. Then again, if his public announcements on abortion, busing and free trade are any indication, he might disregard his previous statements and run again for Congress.

If that's the case, Mariano and Francis may have to keep their day jobs.

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