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Inside Politics

Analysis: Gephardt then and now

The candidate of people who work with their hands

By Jeff Greenfield

Dick Gephardt hugs his son Matt on a campaign stop Sunday in Des Moines, Iowa.
Dick Gephardt hugs his son Matt on a campaign stop Sunday in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Delegates at stake in Iowa: 45

Delegates needed to win Democratic national presidential nomination: 2,161

Events ahead of July 25-31 national convention: 56 (36 primaries, 20 caucuses)

Biggest primary day: March 2 (1,151 delegates at stake)

Second-biggest primary day: February 3 (269 delegates at stake)

Compiled by Robert Yoon and Mark Rodeffer
Jeff Greenfield
Richard Gephardt

DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) -- In the midst of a white-out blizzard two weeks ago, Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Richard Gephardt came to the public library in Dallas Center, Iowa, to preach the Old Testament version of the Democratic gospel.

Gephardt's audience was overwhelmingly elderly, many of them retired union members, wearing the satin jackets of their locals. (Interactive: How the Iowa caucuses work)

They applauded as he spoke about health care, about his son Matt's lifesaving cancer treatments that were paid for by a generous health care plan for Congressmen.

"This is personal to me," he said. "I get it."

He spoke of his long-standing opposition to globalization, the dreadful working conditions of the third world, the need for a global minimum wage.

More than any other candidate, the congressman from Missouri has been preaching the same message for some 16 years, ever since he moved left on social issues like abortion as he prepared for his first Presidential run in 1988. (Audio Slide Show: The Iowa push comes down to the wire)

And perhaps the most intriguing question Iowa Democrats will answer when they caucus Monday night is whether the choir he is preaching to still worships at the same shrine. (Bill Schneider's Political Play of the Week: Those Iowa voters)

Gephardt has always been the candidate of people who work with their hands; 18 mostly industrial unions back him --auto workers, machinists, Teamsters -- while Howard Dean has the support of two service unions, whose members overwhelmingly work for the government.

It is, to put it mildly, highly doubtful that Gephardt's supporters surf the Web with anything like the frequency and enthusiasm of Dean's backers.

Moreover, the landscape has changed since 1988; there are fewer blue-collar workers in the party, more college graduates.

The fear of international competition was at high tide then; Gephardt won these caucuses narrowly with the help of an ad warning Asian nations to stop blocking our imports unless they wanted to try selling "a $48,000 Hyundai" in the United States.

And after eight years of "New Democrat" Bill Clinton, the enthusiasm for a new major government program -- in this case, a health care plan paid for by the repeal of all the Bush tax cuts -- is up for grabs. (Hot races to heat up a cold Iowa night, RNC chairman: Democrats increasingly 'liberal, elitist, angry')

But in one way, 2004 has some potentially worrisome similarities for Gephardt.

Back then, his Iowa win provided no "bounce" in New Hampshire. He finished third, and ran out of money.

This time, his campaign says it has the funds to go one past New Hampshire -- where polls show him running in fifth place or worse. (In New Hampshire: McGovern endorses Clark)

His chances in South Carolina on February 3 are buoyed by the backing of Rep. James Clyburn, the most influential black Democrat in the state where African-Americans may make up a third or more of the primary vote.

And the February 10 primary-like Michigan caucus, with the state's influential industrial unions, should help him.

But the question once again is: Does Gephardt have the money and the reach to go on, especially since, with the rise of Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, a third- or even fourth-place finish for Gephardt is possible; and either one of those seems a fatal blow.

No doubt Gephardt's union-based voter-pull could make these pre-election polls look silly; a first place finish right now seems as plausible for him as for anyone else. (Latest CNN Election Express Line dispatches)

Still, Gephardt goes into Monday as the one major candidate whose campaign is in danger of ending as the Democratic race begins.

Jeff Greenfield is CNN's senior analyst and contributor to "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics."

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