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House Democrats look for new leader

Decision time for Dick Gephardt
Decision time for Dick Gephardt

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt is giving up his leadership post after Democrats lost five seats in Tuesday's midterm elections, saying Democrats need someone to put "our party back in the majority."

Gephardt, 61, whose decision also allows him to clear the way for a possible 2004 presidential bid, has led Democrats in the House of Representatives for the past eight years.

Under his leadership, Democrats have been unable to make up the losses they sustained in the 1994 midterm elections, when Republican took control of the chamber.

In a letter to his Democratic colleagues, Gephardt said he will keep the House seat from Missouri he has held since 1977.

"I treasure the institution of the House and the Democratic colleagues I serve with," he wrote. "But it is time for me to give this opportunity and the honor of leadership to someone else. These are new times, and they call for new ideas and bold action."

Gephardt said he wanted "to step out of a day-to-day management role and talk to a broader audience about our nation and our goals for our children." He is considered a possible 2004 presidential contender.

"It's time for me personally to take a different direction, look at the country's challenge from a different perspective and take on this president and the Republican Party from a different vantage point," Gephardt wrote.

The door to Gephardt's Capitol office usually remains open, but it was closed much of Thursday. After spending Wednesday in seclusion at his Washington home, Gephardt holed up in his office, holding a staff meeting early Thursday and hosting a conference call with the party's 200-plus House members.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert called Gephardt "a tough competitor" Thursday.

"Dick Gephardt and I have had our fair share of policy differences. But I have always admired his ability to articulate his philosophy and marveled at his tremendous work ethic," said Hastert, R-Illinois. "I wish him the best in his future endeavors."

Gephardt has sought the White House before, losing the 1988 Democratic nomination to Michael Dukakis. He is one of several congressional Democrats said to be considering presidential bids in two years from now.

Associates have told key supporters Gephardt is still more than inclined to run, but needs some time to reflect on the decision. One Gephardt adviser told CNN he would expect Gephardt to make a decision about running for the presidency by the end of the year.

At least two Democrats already are vying to succeed him: Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; and Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi of California.(Bios of key players)

Frost, touting his centrist credentials, announced Thursday that he would seek Gephardt's post.

"The country Tuesday moved somewhat to the right," Frost said. "I believe our party must occupy the center if we are to be successful, if we're to come back in the majority, and not move farther to the left."

Pelosi, an outspoken liberal, released a statement Thursday announcing her intent to succeed Gephardt.

"I am prepared to lead with the clarity and firmness that the task requires. I am convinced that the American people share our values and our hopes for the country. Now we must show them the proof of our commitment, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy," she said in the statement.

"We must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans. We cannot allow Republicans to pretend they share our values and then legislate against those values without consequence."

Leadership criticized

Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, of California, could fill Gephardt's post.
Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, of California, could fill Gephardt's post.

In the days before the midterm elections, Gephardt aides and outside advisers said he was all but certain to run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination and was considering stepping aside as minority leader.(Full story)

The Democrats not only failed to gain seats in the House, they lost seats to the GOP. Republicans won at least 226 seats, up from the 223 they had going into the elections. At least 218 seats are needed for control of the 435-member House. (House races)

The losses increased pressure on Gephardt. Some liberal Democrats complained he was too quick to back President Bush's Iraq policy and didn't do enough to force a coherent party alternative to Bush's approach on the economy.

Some Democrats aired their complaints in public.

Rep. Martin Frost of Texas wants to replace Gephardt as minority leader.
Rep. Martin Frost of Texas wants to replace Gephardt as minority leader.

"Dick Gephardt, let me say this, is one of the finest leaders this nation has known. He's the hardest working, biggest money raiser and frankly the most passionate Democrat in the House," Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tennessee, told CNN's "Crossfire." "But much like a manager of a baseball team who really, really wants to win, is beloved by his players but simply can't win -- sometimes it's time to move on. And now might be a time for infusion of new ideas and new faces within the leadership of the House on the Democratic side."

Rep. Peter Deutsch of Florida -- a longtime Gephardt critic -- was even more direct: "If no one else will challenge him, I will."

Democrats will hold an election next Thursday to fill the post, meaning a compressed and likely spirited campaign is imminent.

-- CNN Correspondents Kate Snow and John King contributed to this report.

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