Ten Iowa Democrats were sizing up their party's presidential candidates over chips and salsa here Saturday when Nick Maybanks, a young lawyer, stumbled onto an unexpected consensus within the group -- and a warning light for former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.).
"I think the party's ready for new leadership," Maybanks said as heads began to nod in agreement. "That's one of the reasons I'm not thrilled about Dick Gephardt. He had a chance as minority leader to bring back the House. He failed."
Gephardt won the Iowa presidential caucuses in 1988, and because of his next-door-neighbor status and close ties to organized labor, he is considered the man to beat in the 2004 caucuses. But around the table, he was viewed dismissively as a candidate from the past, and the names of newcomers John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean prompted far more favorable responses.
Maybanks had expressed relief that Al Gore had decided not to run for president in 2004 -- a view widely shared among the 10 Democrats invited by The Washington Post to talk about the candidates and what they are looking for in a Democratic nominee. But when he started talking about Gephardt, others quickly joined in.
"I go along with that," Marie Ellingson quietly volunteered from the other end of the table. Her husband, Orville, a farmer, agreed, saying, "This isn't the man I'm going to support."
"He's not even on our radar screen," said Libby Gotschall Slappey, whose commentary on the Democratic field made the hot sauce on the table at the Mexican restaurant seem bland by comparison.
Iowa was awash in presidential politics this weekend, one year before the caucuses that will begin the Democratic nomination battle. Party activists said they are hungry to find a candidate to oppose President Bush in 2004, sensing, as Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) put it, that there are "cracks beginning to show in the veneer of his invincibility."
Gephardt, Kerry and Dean were in the state all weekend and appeared Saturday night in the little town of Marion to attend a sold-out dinner held by the Linn County Democratic Party that drew more than 250 activists.
The 10 Linn County Democrats who agreed to participate in an informal focus group a few hours before the dinner are not a representative sample of Democratic caucus-goers, but their lively opinions were consistent with the comments of other Democrats.
Andy Peterson, a neurologist, summed up the problem Gephardt faces as begins speaking as a presidential candidate, not a House leader. "He's minority leader, but otherwise I don't know squat about him, other than that the Democrats tubed in the last election," he said.
Gephardt advisers would like to see expectations lowered in Iowa but know how important the state is to his candidacy. "This thing has just begun," Gephardt said Saturday. "We all have to come out here and run a campaign. . . . I think we all face a stern test."
Mindful that many Democrats blame him for not offering a strong economic message in the midterms, Gephardt began to repair the damage. He told audiences that as president he would send Congress legislation "to rescind all the tax cuts that George Bush by that time has put in place," and use much of the money to give "everyone in this country quality, decent health care."
Art Staed, a social studies facilitator in the Cedar Rapids schools, was the lone voice in the group to speak up for Gephardt. "He's a loyal Democrat, he's straightforward and he's outspoken," he said.
The fact that the focus group included no strong labor voices may explain why there was so little clear support for Gephardt. But Vilsack said the former House leader should not count on union backing.
"The conventional wisdom assumes that labor is with Gephardt, and I don't know that that's true," Vilsack said. "I don't think that [labor unions] necessarily are sold on any candidate at this point. There are an awful lot of other groups that could provide a base for any candidate."
Dean, the little-known former governor, said he was making his 18th trip to Iowa. He has made inroads with the liberal activists who strongly oppose a possible war with Iraq and who want a champion to go after the president.
At the dinner, Dean attacked Bush on all fronts, including accusing him of trying to "foster racial divisiveness" in the debate over affirmative action by saying the University of Michigan used quotas in its admissions policy.
"That is a disgrace to the president of the United States," he said.
"Dean's energy lit up the room," Maybanks wrote in a post-dinner e-mail message.
Dean's rhetoric resonates with party liberals. "I've already made up my mind that Howard Dean's the one," Gary Grommon told the group assembled by The Post. "I don't care for Bush's war or his war resolution."
Peterson's wife, Diane, described Dean's views on health care (he supports universal coverage) as "wonderful," while Chad Winterhof, a computer engineer, said Dean is "bringing up issues that need to be brought up."
Kerry's potential appeal was demonstrated Saturday in Des Moines, where nearly 600 people showed up to hear him speak. That kind of turnout would be impressive on the eve of the caucuses and was all the more remarkable a full year in advance.
Kerry's attraction lies in a resume that includes a distinguished Vietnam War record and the kind of national security experience that many Democrats see as essential in challenging Bush in 2004. Saying she is "definitely leaning toward him," Peggy Whitworth, a caucus veteran, said, "The first thing I think of when I think of him is presidential."
Kerry's environmental record appealed to some in the group here Saturday afternoon, but his support for the Iraq war resolution raised questions. Others said they do not know enough about him to make a judgment.
The group had mixed reviews for Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). Diane Peterson said she knew people who "were ecstatic about" him but added, "I don't know anything about him."
Whitworth reeled off attractive aspects of Edwards's biography, then posed a question that drew nods of approval from some of the others. "My big question is, what's the rush?" she said. "He's four years in the Senate, he's a young man. I don't think he's quite ready to be president."
The crusade by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) against sex and violence by the entertainment industry impressed one member of the group, but others said they see him as too conservative. Slappey offered a description that left the others laughing. "I don't mean this corporately," she said, "but he's pretty Nabisco. He's kind of a Lorna Doone among the Oreos and all the other wonderful cookies."