Gephardt Ends Bid for White House
Departure Triggers Fight for Mo. Primary
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2004; Page A05
ST. LOUIS, Jan. 20 -- An emotional Richard A. Gephardt came home to end his political career Tuesday, professing no regret, anger or recriminations -- but overcome by the kind of sadness that accompanies finality.
"Today, my pursuit of the presidency has reached its end," said Gephardt, 62, at a downtown news conference in the city in which he was reared. "I'm withdrawing as a candidate and returning to private life after a long time in the warm light of public service."
Struggling to maintain his composure, Gephardt made his formal announcement hours after he placed a devastating fourth in the Iowa caucuses, which ended his 33-year political career. He had already said he would not seek reelection to Congress.
"The silver lining in all of this is that I'll finally get to see [my family] at every opportunity, rather than when opportunities could be found," he said. As he named his wife and three children, all standing behind him, he broke down and referred to them as "my life."
He said he will finish the remaining year of his 14th term in the House but ruled out a Senate run. He offered no career plans after that. "I will continue to work for universal health care, pension reform, more teachers in the classroom, energy independence from Persian Gulf oil" and for trade policy that is fair to workers, Gephardt said, touching on the major issues of his career and of his campaign.
"My career in public office is coming to an end," he said, "but the fight is never over."
A respected force on Capitol Hill during his 27 years there, Gephardt was never able to turn his legislative strength and experience into the national platforms he long sought -- the positions of House speaker and president. From his arrival on the Hill in 1977, he was one of those who stood out as smart, energetic and marked for leadership. Gephardt rose to the ranks of Democratic Caucus chairman and then House majority leader -- but that was where the leadership road stopped. After the Republicans took over the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, he became the minority leader and desperately tried to win back control of the chamber through three election cycles. He visited virtually every congressional district in the country and raised millions of dollars, but he was never able to add the title of speaker to his résumé.
Gephardt resigned as House Democratic leader after the 2002 elections, in which Republicans gained seats. A few months later, he launched his presidential bid.
On Tuesday, as his stunned campaign staff was still sifting through the debris of his unexpectedly poor finish in a state he won during the 1988 presidential race, and where he was considered a strong competitor, Gephardt gave no hints of regret. "I accept the results with the knowledge that I gave this campaign everything that I had in me," he said. "I'm proud of the campaign we waged. It was fought on the principles of fairness for our workers, security for our seniors and opportunity for our children."
Gephardt's departure from the race triggers a Feb 3. primary fight for Missouri -- after all the other Democrats had written it off to a favorite son. It is too late for Gephardt to be removed from the ballot, compounding the problem for the remaining contenders.
"Missouri is a big issue for all of them now," said Steve Elmendorf, a longtime senior Gephardt aide. "They are all financially strapped, and this just added one of the most expensive states and the one with the most delegates February 3."
May Scheve, the state party chairman, said that until now none of the other candidates had a presence in the state in terms of paid organizational staff, and that she could not recall the last time any of them campaigned here. She expects that to change soon.
Former senator Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), who called himself a mentor of Gephardt's, said Tuesday that Gephardt's withdrawal from the race will leave a "vacuum" in Missouri that all the other candidates will try to fill.
Gephardt congratulated his opponents for their successes in Iowa but would not say whether he will endorse anyone soon. "I haven't had a chance to do anything other than what I'm doing, and I've had a little trouble with that," he said to much laughter. "So we'll figure out the rest at a later point."
His rivals all offered kind words through calls and public statements -- but Gephardt said none has yet asked for his support.
"I'd love to have his support," Kerry said on CBS Tuesday. "He'll make his own decision about what he decides to do. But there isn't one of us in this race who can kid you and say we wouldn't like his support."
Gephardt had gone into Iowa with high hopes of repeating his 1988 success there, which had catapulted him to a second-place finish in New Hampshire before he was forced to drop out because of a lack of funds. This time, his staff members said they were better prepared to take advantage of an Iowa boost. They had an unsurpassed organization coming from the 21 unions that endorsed Gephardt and ground operations in the follow-up states.
But Gephardt's problems were deeper than organizational. He faced the perception that his time had passed. In event after event across Iowa, when undecided votes came to hear him, many said they were attracted by his populist message but were worried that he was not dynamic enough to defeat President Bush in November.
In the end, not even his labor support seemed to help Monday night. Less than a fourth of caucus-goers were from labor households, according to entrance polls conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. And among union households, the other Democratic candidates did as well as Gephardt.
Gephardt spent his day on goodbyes. He spoke to about 100 staffers by conference call, and hugged just about everyone at the news conference when he left. Asked what he would tell his Missouri supporters who might want show their continued support by selecting his name on the Feb. 3 ballot, he said: "I would hope they wouldn't. Make their vote count."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company