In a Jan. 5 article about the presidential candidacy of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the name of New Hampshire activist Jim Demers was misspelled. (Published 1/8/03)

Outgoing House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) yesterday announced his intention to run for president in 2004, saying President Bush is leading America "down the wrong path or not leading at all," and pledging to offer "a distinctive choice and a different direction" on domestic and national security issues.

In contrast to some of his rivals, Gephardt made an understated entry into the race by issuing a written statement declaring he will establish a presidential committee Monday. He has eschewed media interviews and appearances except with his hometown paper in St. Louis.

Aides said Gephardt, who turns 62 at the end of this month, will plunge into travel, fundraising and the recruitment of staff and supporters, particularly among elected officials and in key early states. He plans to campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the three earliest battlegrounds of 2004, before the end of the month.

His aides said Gephardt is far better known among Democratic activists than a rival such as Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who gave 30 interviews Thursday to announce his intention to run. Gephardt aides said the Missouri Democrat can afford to wait to begin laying out his vision of where to take the party and the country. A formal announcement will come in the spring, with the timing affected by possible war with Iraq.

His short statement foreshadowed a campaign that will seek to draw bright lines of distinction with the White House and possibly with some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. "Too many unmet promises and too much empty rhetoric has left us a nation unsure of our own economic security and still vulnerable here at home to the threats we faced over a year ago on September 11th," he said.

Gephardt has battled the Bush White House on tax cuts and on economic and domestic policy, but he was one of Bush's strongest allies last fall in the fight to win congressional approval to go to war against Iraq -- to the chagrin of some of his Democratic colleagues.

Gephardt, who unsuccessfully sought his party's nomination in 1988, the year Bush's father won the White House, brings a variety of assets to the presidential race. They include more than a decade as a leader of the Democrats in Congress, a national financial and political network and strong ties to organized labor.

But he begins his second bid for the presidency coming off a fourth straight failure to help Democrats win back the House and with questions, even among allies, about whether he can spark enthusiasm among voters after so many years on the political front lines.

"It's a long campaign," said Steve Elmendorf, a top Gephardt adviser. "He does not believe you have to unveil your complete organization and message in the first week of January."

Three other Democrats -- Edwards, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- have established presidential committees, and aides said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) is likely to enter the race this month.

Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) plans to spend the coming week consulting with his Senate colleagues before making a decision. Al Sharpton of New York said Friday he plans to form a presidential committee this month.

Others who have indicated they are thinking about running include Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), former senator Gary Hart (Colo.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Even if they all don't run, this will add up to the biggest field of Democratic presidential candidates since 1988. Unlike that contest, it has no dominant candidate, which is one reason why there is so much activity so early in the year.

With former vice president Al Gore on the sidelines, no one in the race can match Gephardt's experience or longevity in national politics, or in the gritty work of maintaining contacts and friendships in many of the states that will shape the nomination battle.

"His first visit to New Hampshire was in January 1985," said Jim Demurs, a New Hampshire activist who is helping to organize the state for Gephardt. "I don't think there has been an election in New Hampshire since 1985 where Dick Gephardt didn't come in to help Democratic candidates. I don't think there is anybody in the past, or who is getting into this race, who has maintained that kind of a connection."

In 1988, Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses but finished second in New Hampshire to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and eventually ran out of money. He will start as the heavy favorite in Iowa but may have trouble meeting expectations in that state. He is talking to John Lapp, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's 2002 campaign manager, about running his Iowa operation, Democratic sources said yesterday.

Although Gephardt declared in a 1996 interview, "We are all New Democrats now," his links are primarily on the Democratic left. Gore's decision not to run gives Gephardt, who has opposed key free trade legislation, a significant head start over the other candidates in corralling labor support. "He starts with a big leg up with the union leadership," a union official said.

Whether that will translate into significant political support is a different question. Given the size of the Democratic field, it will be difficult for any candidate to win the support of two-thirds of the labor movement to receive an endorsement. Beyond that, labor leaders question whether Gephardt would be the strongest Democrat to oppose Bush. "He'll have a lot of people who say he's old news, so the big hurdle he has to get over is making the case that he can win," the official said.

Gephardt was elected to the House in 1976 and voted more conservatively than he does today. In 1985, he helped found the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, although he has drifted away from that group. He was elected House majority leader after then-Speaker Jim Wright (Tex.) and then-Democratic whip Tony Coelho (Calif.) quit the House over ethics issues. Gephardt became Democratic leader after then-Speaker Thomas Foley (Wash.) was defeated in the 1994 GOP landslide.

Gephardt never led the Democrats back into the majority and in November, two days after his party again failed to take back the House, he announced he would step down as Democratic leader, an uncertain beginning to his presidential campaign.

House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) vows a "different direction" for nation.Outgoing House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) has battled the Bush White House on tax cuts and on economic and domestic policy.