Gore Picks Up Support in New Hampshire
By Ceci Connolly and David S. Broder
After a morning meeting where Gephardt, a bitter rival during the 1988 primaries, confirmed that he was staying in the House in hopes of leading a Democratic takeover in 2000, Gore lost no time in recruiting longtime Gephardt backers in the leadoff primary state.
While Gephardt was addressing a caucus of House Democrats in a pep-rally atmosphere that amounted to a kickoff of the drive for the additional six seats that would spell control, in New Hampshire a handful of old Gephardt supporters, led by state Sen. Deb Pignatelli, endorsed Gore. Joe Keefe, a veteran Democrat helping organize the state for Gore, said, "We're going to get the vast majority of Gephardt's people."
Speaking of Gephardt, Gore told television interviewers in Manchester, "Dick and I are close friends. We ran against each other at one time, but we've been friends for 22 years. . . . I'm excited about his campaign to be speaker. I've pledged my all-out support to help."
Privately, Gore advisers were breathing a sigh of relief. Calling Gephardt "the most formidable opponent to Al Gore," one vice presidential aide said, "This means there is not going to be a gut-wrenching battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party."
That comment appeared to minimize the challenge from Gore's only declared opponent, former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and the problems that might be presented if either Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts or civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson who have said they are weighing the decision enters the race.
But Gephardt with his national fund-raising network, ready-made platoons of supporters among House Democrats and allies in labor from their battles on trade issues posed a more serious threat. He outran Gore in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1988, although the nomination eventually went to Michael S. Dukakis.
Gephardt, who breakfasted with Gore at the vice president's house and then had coffee with President Clinton in the White House residence, said in an interview that both men were "very cordial and pleased" that he had come to confirm his decision personally to them.
Asked if Gore had asked for and received his support for 2000, Gephardt said, "We did not go into that." He said he had no plans to endorse anyone in the near future.
"Clearly the vice president has enormous advantages" in the nomination contest, Gephardt said. "He's done the job and he's done it well."
But his conversations with Gore and Clinton focused on "how we will get our message out when we finally get off impeachment," rather than the coming election, he said. The 1998 campaign demonstrated the importance of Democrats delivering a "unified message" on two or three issues, he said.
At the late-afternoon Democratic caucus, where members carried signs reading "Speaker Gephardt," the Missourian said the past four years of minority status have forged a newfound unity in party ranks. "What unites us as Democrats is far greater than our differences," he said. "It made my decision an easy one."
Referring to the last three opening-day ceremonies where he has had to acknowledge the election of a Republican speaker, Gephardt said, "I've handed over that gavel for the last time." Two years from now, he vowed, he will preside over "a new Congress that reflects the hopes and dreams of the American people, rather than the drumbeat of a small minority bent on imposing their will on an entire nation."
In the interview before his speech, Gephardt said his decision was based more on his temperament than on a calculation of the political odds. "At the end of the day," he said, "you do what's in your heart and gut. This was very personal. It was not based on my prospects, or how much money I could raise or what other candidates were running."
At the same time, he said, the Democrats' surprising success in gaining seats in 1998 "was important to me" because it brought the goal of overturning the four-year-old Republican majority closer to realization.
"We should not assume anything" about 2000, he said, "but we have a great chance." As the key figure in the Democrats' steady comeback from their 1994 shellacking, Gephardt said he was proud of the teamwork that had gone into that effort and did not want to abandon it. "It's like we've won two playoff games and now we're in the Super Bowl," he said. "This is not the time for the quarterback to decide to go play baseball."
The minority leader said he realized that he might be writing off his White House ambitions for all time. Now 58, he said, "Clearly this could mean I will spend the rest of my public service career in the House. But life is unpredictable."
Gore's New Hampshire trip, his fifth visit in 13 months, was billed as official business and paid for with tax funds. At a stop in Nashua, he discussed federal programs to help workers learn high-tech skills. In Derry, he announced a $150,000 "smart growth" grant to help manage traffic and preserve open space. Along the way, he squeezed in a limousine ride with Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), whose endorsement is viewed as a valuable prize, and private meetings with other potentially influential officials.
When Gore ran in New Hampshire in 1988, he finished fifth with less than 10,000 votes.
Connolly reported from New Hampshire, Broder from Washington.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company