MANCHESTER, N.H., FEB. 10 -- When Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) portrays himself as the presidential candidate of "change," he doesn't mean his voting record, his beliefs or the temperature of his rhetoric.
Yet some who've known him for years -- and others who are just beginning to look him over -- are asking: When did this earnest conciliator, whom legislative colleagues once called "Little Dickie Do-Right," turn into such an establishment-baiting firebrand?
And is he driven by a core set of beliefs, they ask, or just by an urge to climb the ladder?
"I'm not saying it's phony, but the Gephardt we've seen in the last few weeks is not the Gephardt I saw for 11 years in the House," said Alvin From, a longtime Gephardt friend who directs the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrist Democrats that Gephardt helped found in 1985.
"Dick is very smart and shrewd," From said. "It may well be there was always a 'hot' Gephardt in him that was never exposed before. He understands that the House eats up 'hot' politicians. And he knows that in a presidential campaign, you've got to intensify your message. It's a transition that most legislators have trouble making."
Gephardt made the transition well enough to win the Iowa caucuses Monday night, and now the matter of his "consistency," as Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) puts it, is at the center of Democratic presidential contest.
In the weeks ahead, as Gephardt, 47, is introduced to a national electorate that knows little about him beyond his "$48,000 Hyundai" ads, he'll try to show that the apparent incongruities in his political personality complement each other, and that the changes he's made on some major issues reflect growth and flexibility. His opponents will argue that the former is a product of packaging, the latter opportunism. They've already labeled him a "fly-by-night populist."
Gephardt's voting record shows a clear right-to-left movement during 11 years in the House. In the first half of his career, he tended to vote more often with Southern conservatives; in the second half, with Northern liberals. The tipping point came around 1982-83, when a national recession hit especially hard in his suburban St. Louis district -- an area of blue-collar workers with conservative social views.
Gephardt says he does not recall going through great philosophical change during that period. But before it, he opposed raising the minimum wage, creating the Consumer Protection Agency, funding community health centers and shelters for battered women, and extending the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. He supported tuition tax credits, an antibusing and antiabortion amendment to the Constitution, the MX missile and B1 bomber, and -- after a Democratic alternative he fought for failed -- the 1981 Reagan tax cuts.
Now he blames those same tax cuts for lining the pockets of corporations and contributing to trade deficits. Now he calls for cuts in defense spending. His most dramatic turnabout came in 1985 when, as he was gearing up to run for president, he announced he no longer supported an antiabortion amendment, which he called unachievable. That has won him the wrath of antiabortion groups, but removed a roadblock with pro-choice women, who are a much bigger part of the mix in Democratic primaries.
The transformation in Gephardt the presidential candidate has been equally dramatic. Here, it goes as much to rhetoric as substance. For the first two years of his marathon quest, the most vivid imagery in Gephardt's stump speeches was soft; it was of hot summer nights on the front porch of his boyhood home in St. Louis, listening to his parents, neither of whom had a college education, encouraging him and his brother to work hard and "dream dreams."
"We can't just feel good," Gephardt would exhort audiences, "we have to be good." Boiled down, the message was: Everyone has to work harder.
Now he has a new speech -- written by Robert Shrum, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's former speech writer -- in which he says America is in danger of losing control of its economic destiny, and flails at the root causes of the problem: foreign trading partners, corporate giants and editorial writers.
Addressing a rally here yesterday, Gephardt divided the nation, oratorically, into "their America" and "our America." He said "their America" with a sneer that seemed out of place on his Tom Sawyer face.
The people who live in "their America," he said, are "cynical" and "greedy." They turn their backs on displaced workers and family farmers, he continued. They sell off American assets and jobs to foreigners. They pollute the land and air for a fast buck. They're waiting for a chance to hack away Social Security. And they don't have the guts to back an oil import fee, because they don't realize that Americans, even in chilly New Hampshire, care about the national interest more than they care about their narrow interests.
To each new recitation of the devilry of these people, Gephardt shouted "Enough is enough!" And before long, many in the crowd were chanting with him. He ended by pledging, as president, to "change America and bring it back its soul." The crowd chanted "Gep-hardt! Gep-hardt! Gep-hardt!"
Not everyone joined in. "I don't know a lot about his past, but I have a feeling he wasn't talking like this a fews weeks ago," said Tom Paulidis, 36, a sales representative for a local printing firm. He said he'd been attracted to Gephardt's "sincerity" in two debates. But "he was awfully strident," Paulidis said. "I'm not sure he even believes it himself. He comes across like a guy who has seen some light and is really pushing the door open. I wish it wasn't so transparent."
The "light" Gephardt saw appeared at the end of December -- at the lowest point of his two-year marathon quest for the presidency. Gephardt had sunk from 24 percent to 6 percent in the Iowa polls. Everyone on the staff was down. "Misery begat misery," said one senior staff aide.
Gephardt took off eight days around Christmas to be with his family. He also worked closely with Shrum, who was putting together the Hyundai ad and crafted the hotter speeches.
Gephardt said his decision to put a much sharper focus on the trade issue in his ads and speeches was "the culmination of about 9,000" editorials that labeled him -- falsely, he contends -- protectionist. "They made me angry," he said. "It blew me away" that editorial writers seemed to accept a reduced standard of living for blue-collar workers as an unfortunate "fact of life."
As the stump speeches heated up, Gephardt's Iowa wardrobe changed. Off went the business suits; on came the farm feed caps and brightly colored parka jackets. The bland became the hot.
Gephardt supporters argue that he always has seen himself as an outsider, even during the years he worked his way to a House leadership position -- Democratic caucus chairman -- as a consummate coalition-builder, nose-counter, ego-stroker, and finder of the golden mean.
"He's always taken on issues, whether hospital cost containment in the 1970s or tax reform in the mid-1980s, that cut against the grain of established interests," said Steve Murphy, a former House staff aide who directed Gephardt's Iowa campaign.
But most of all, everyone talks of Gephardt's extraordinary drive and determination. Old friends recall that when his infant son, Matt, was ill with a form of cancer thought to be incurable, Gephardt refused to yield. He spend months going from one hospital to another. Matt is now 17, and the cancer has long since gone into remission.
"When Dick wants something, he'll do what he needs to do to get it," From said.