In the competition to become Sen. John F. Kerry's vice presidential running mate, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt is the tortoise to Sen. John Edwards's hare, the insider player to Edwards's outside game.
Edwards (N.C.) has kept a busy public schedule since he quit the Democratic presidential race in March, appearing at state Democratic Party conventions around the country, raising money in buckets for Kerry and the Democratic National Committee, lighting up audiences, and building support among the party's rank-and-file.
Gephardt (Mo.), the former House Democratic leader and two-time presidential candidate, has maintained a much lower profile, making far fewer public appearances and keeping his counsel close while supporters work those around Kerry on his behalf.
"It's clear that John Edwards is running for this job, and unless I'm missing something, it's clear that Gephardt has exactly the opposite strategy," said a labor official who agreed to handicap the competition on the condition that he not be identified. "I think Edwards is working this very hard, and Gephardt has a sense that [he and Kerry are] friends and it's a different deal."
A vice presidential contender in the past, Gephardt has learned that presidential nominees are generally resistant to outside pressure, say his advisers. "He thinks there's only one person who should make this decision and it's John Kerry, and he has discouraged everybody from campaigning and lobbying in his behalf as best he can," said political adviser Bill Carrick.
Many Democrats believe Kerry's decision will come down to a choice between Gephardt and Edwards, but there are others still believed to be under consideration. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is one, and there are indications that Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) have also gotten a serious look from the presumptive nominee.
Kerry and Gephardt have served together in Congress for many years, but they did not develop a close relationship until the presidential race -- during the long season of debates, forums and joint appearances before the primaries. "There was natural respect for one another and what they'd accomplished that grew on the campaign trail," said one Democrat involved in the campaign. "They seemed to be the two that got along best."
Their advisers long assumed the two would end up as the last two contenders for the nomination, and both were caught by surprise when former Vermont governor Howard Dean surged to the front of the pack late last year. What might have become a strained relationship had they ended up battling for the nomination never materialized, as Kerry surged past Dean while Gephardt quickly fell by the wayside. Gephardt almost instantly endorsed Kerry, to the Massachusetts senator's delight.
Gephardt and Kerry differ on some key issues. Kerry supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and welfare reform in 1996, while Gephardt opposed both. Gephardt proposed eliminating all of President Bush's tax cuts, while Kerry says he would roll back only those cuts benefiting the wealthiest.
But Gephardt's advisers believe that those differences, as well as concerns about Gephardt being a figure of the past, will not be decisive in determining whether he is chosen. Said one adviser: "If Kerry had reservations about that, they wouldn't be talking about Dick."
Gephardt, 63, a lawyer and 14-term House member, became the House Democratic leader after the 1994 elections and served until he stepped down to run for president after his party failed to regain control of the House in 2002. His supporters say that, among those seen as in contention, Gephardt's experience, decency and discipline offer Kerry the strongest combination of attributes. They argue that Gephardt could boost Kerry's chances of carrying Missouri, which Bush won narrowly four years ago, and also help the ticket in other Midwest battlegrounds.
"The case is simply that he's the best man, he's the best prepared to be president," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). Obey added: "He's also, I think, the best prepared to help a new president govern because he understands not just government, but he understands the country."
The argument against Gephardt is the same he faced during his unsuccessful presidential campaign this year, which ended a day after he finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses. Some Democrats, even admirers of Gephardt, fear that he represents the past, is too rooted in the old Democratic Party, is too tied to organized labor and would complicate Kerry's efforts to present himself to voters as a centrist Democrat.
Although Gephardt has kept a low profile, he has plenty of public advocates. The industrial unions that backed his candidacy during the primaries strongly support him, and he has solid support among his Democratic colleagues in the House. And longtime adviser Steve Elmendorf now sits inside Kerry's headquarters as deputy campaign manager.
Those advocates have not been shy about prodding Kerry. When Kerry campaigned at the Teamsters convention in Las Vegas in May, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa made a strong case for his longtime friend Gephardt, telling reporters that he had repeatedly urged Kerry to pick Gephardt. "He needs somebody that's high profile, somebody that can go out and carry a state, somebody that has a constituency, somebody that can deliver," Hoffa was quoted as saying that day.
Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America, said he has made similar pitches to Kerry and James Johnson, who heads Kerry's search process. Gerard said he had spoken to both men on the phone within the past month and had several other occasions to deliver the message to the candidate. "I was very comfortable in letting him know I thought Dick Gephardt would be a tremendous contribution to the ticket," Gerard said in a telephone interview. "At a time when integrity and stability are important, John Kerry brings that and Dick Gephardt brings that."
Asked whether Gephardt had asked him to help, Gerard said no. "I think he'd just be uncomfortable asking us to do anything like that," he said.
Gephardt's support among service employee unions is less solid, however. During the primaries, the Service Employees International Union endorsed Dean. When the SEIU held its convention in California last month, Andrew Stern, the union's president, took a vice presidential straw vote among his executive board members. The winner by a wide margin was Edwards. Stern has not publicly expressed a preference.
Edwards also has some support in the House. Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said that Gephardt and Edwards could count on strong support -- "Dick because of his long relationship, and Edwards as well because I think he brings excitement to the ticket."
Gephardt loyalists have been quick to counter suggestions that Edwards is a more popular choice among rank-and-file Democrats. When the Associated Press reported this week that eight of 11 Missouri county chairmen, selected at random, backed Edwards over Gephardt, the former House leader's supporters noted that most were not from the St. Louis area, which is where Gephardt's congressional district is located. They said the key to winning Missouri is carrying the St. Louis media market, not the outlying counties.
With Kerry believed to be close to a decision about his running mate, Gephardt and some of those around him have become even more press shy. Gephardt declined to be interviewed for this report.
Tom O'Donnell, a Democratic strategist and former Gephardt chief of staff, was similarly skittish when asked to describe how his former boss has approached the search process. "I usually have a fair amount to say, but on this, the best is to keep quiet," he said.