REP. RICHARD A. GEPHARDT'S long-expected but strangely subdued entry into the presidential race last weekend was pushed farther down the page by Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle's surprise announcement Tuesday that he won't make a run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Mr. Daschle had told a home-state newspaper of his inclination to run, but within 48 hours the South Dakota senator had decided that his real passion lies not in a race for the presidency but in doing battle with President Bush and Republicans from a desk in the Senate chamber. So it now falls to Mr. Gephardt and the other announced and expected Democratic challengers to take their respective cases against the Bush presidency to the nation.

Richard Gephardt comes to that task with unique qualifications. None of the other Democratic contenders has sought the presidency longer, Mr. Gephardt having launched his first bid 15 years ago. Neither can any other Democratic contestant match his experience in top party leadership posts, Mr. Gephardt having held the position of House Democratic leader for nearly eight years. And few Democratic challengers have registered as long a string of political disappointments as Mr. Gephardt. First there was the flame-out in the 1988 Democratic primaries after victory in the early Iowa caucuses. Then, in 1992, Mr. Gephardt abandoned the race against a then-popular Republican president, George Bush, only to see a little-known, two-term governor from Arkansas step up to win the prize. And don't forget the successive biennial failures since 1996, including last year's midterm elections, to win back Democratic control of the House.

But with Al Gore on the sidelines and Tom Daschle a non-starter, the 14-term Missouri Democrat -- having divested himself of leadership responsibilities -- is well positioned to wage a strong fight for the nomination. He starts with name recognition among party regulars and activists, prowess at fundraising, solid links to organized labor and a network of campaign workers, all vital assets in the Democratic primaries. Mr. Gephardt is also a known quantity. In a growing and competitive Democratic race, that can be extremely helpful or, in some instances, a serious liability.

He brings a record of rock-ribbed support for programs that his party's core constituencies favor. But the congressman didn't win much applause from his party (though he did from us) for supporting the White House on a resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. Some Democrats likened it to his support for Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut. But if Mr. Gephardt draws applause from hard-liners on Iraq, his vocal and consistent opposition to NAFTA and fast-track authority to strike trade deals overseas also places him firmly in an anti-free-trade camp that would seriously undermine U.S. global leadership and economic security.

Mr. Gephardt plans to introduce his candidacy with more fanfare in the weeks ahead. That should provide ample occasion for him to spell out his priorities and the direction in which he would lead the nation if finally given the chance.