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Gephardt's do-or-die Iowa campaign

Rep. Dick Gephardt is battling for his political life on the hustings of Iowa. If he doesn't tie or beat former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Jan. 19 caucuses, conventional wisdom says he'll be forced from the Democratic presidential race. MSNBC's Tom Curry reports.
With little more than a week before the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt talks to supporters at the Senior Center in Independence, Iowa, on Saturday. Laura Rauch / AP
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In 1988 with the rallying cry “It’s your fight too!” Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses by bashing under-priced foreign products that he said were costing Americans their jobs.

That year Gephardt lost the nomination to Mike Dukakis.

This year here in Iowa it is Gephardt’s fight for political survival against Democratic front-runner Howard Dean.

Once again Gephardt is making the issue of trade and low wages in foreign countries his rallying cry.

As he prepared for a face-off with Dean and the other Democratic hopefuls in an MSNBC debate Sunday night, Gephardt trekked across north central Iowa all day Saturday wooing voters and rallying his base.

Spotlight on trade, immigration
A strong turnout in the Jan. 19 caucuses by trade union members, such as the Teamsters and the Iowa United Auto Workers, whose leadership has endorsed Gephardt, is crucial to his chances of victory.

“I’ve been endorsed by 21 unions that represent 95,000 workers in Iowa. Probably 110,000 people in total will show up for the caucuses. If we can get a fourth of the union members who have endorsed me to actually appear, we’re going to be close to a winning number,” Gephardt told reporters Saturday.

On Saturday Gephardt pledged that as president he’d implement “a trade policy that will stop the race to the bottom.”

“I will never let you down on trade,” he pledged in Waterloo. “I will never agree to some trade agreement that has some theory behind it that it is going to help everybody, when it won’t….We need a president who will stop the human exploitation.”

He reminded crowds that he had voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and against the trade liberalization accord with China in 2000.

He said his rivals for the nomination, including Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, supported the China trade deal and NAFTA.

And – seeming to acknowledge what is emerging as a potent issue in Iowa, Gephardt linked the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico to Iowa’s cities and towns with trade policy.

Dave Neil, head of the United Auto Workers union political operation in Iowa, is urging union members to back Gephardt.Tom Curry

“How are you ever going to stop illegal immigration from Mexico? Why do people want to come here? Because they can’t survive in their own country!”

He promised to pressure foreign governments to raise wages and improve working conditions.

Iowa UAW political director Dave Neil took the floor in Waterloo after Gephardt to deliver an emotional appeal. “All of you have got friends and neighbors, you’ve got Christmas card lists, call every friend you’ve got. We have an opportunity, we have a responsibility to turn out everyone that we can in this state for Dick Gephardt,” he said. “If we miss this opportunity, folks, it’s going to be a long, long time before our children and our grandchildren have the chance to take it back.”

'We're going to win this thing'
Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy told reporters in a conference call Saturday that Gephardt’s pollster found in the last few days of polling that the race is essentially tied between Dean and Gephardt.

Murphy said Gephardt had not been in the lead in Iowa since he was forced to take his TV ads off the air in November, due to the spending lid imposed by federal law on candidates who accept taxpayer matching funds. Gephardt accepts matching funds; Dean has opted out of the spending limit/matching fund system and can spend freely.

Murphy said new polling showed Dean’s negatives have gone up substantially as Iowans heard reports, first broadcast on NBC News, that Dean had made dismissive remarks in a TV broadcast four years ago about the Iowa caucuses calling them “dominated by special interests.”

Gephardt didn’t directly touch on the issue is his speeches Saturday, but his staff handed out a statement in which he said, "I still haven't gotten a clear answer as to who these 'special interests' are. Are they organized labor? Farmers? Middle-class families? Senior citizens?"

And Gephardt allies laded out anti-Dean rhetoric.

“We don’t need a presidential candidate who spends all their time apologizing and making excuses and trying to retract things they said,” said state Sen. Bill Dotzler, alluding to Dean, as he introduced Gephardt in Waterloo Saturday morning. 

In implied contrast to Dean’s freewheeling style of commenting first and amending later, Gephardt is offering himself as the consummate pro.

“Some people will always vote for the fresh face or the new flavor of the month, but in the world we’re in, to beat Bush you need somebody that has experience and that people know has steady hands and reliability.”

He also argued, “If you’re going to beat Bush you’ve got to beat him in the Midwest,” in a swath of states from Missouri to West Virginia.

Margaret Kenealy of Waverly, Iowa, voted for Bush in 2000 but is considering backing Dick Gephardt for the Democratic nomination in the Jan 19 Iowa caucuses.Tom Curry

Gephardt also contends that he is the candidate best equipped to win back conservative Midwestern Democrats, many of whom are union members and old Reagan Democrats who have been alienated from the party.

One Iowan who voted Republican in 2000 but is favoring Gephardt this year is Margaret Kenealy, a mother of three young children, who lives in Waverly, Iowa. “I agree with him on jobs. NAFTA hasn’t gone well,” she said after hearing Gephardt speak in Waverly Saturday.

“I’m pleased with where we are; we’re going to win this thing,” Gephardt serenely predicted Saturday.

Despite his confidence, the signs aren’t all encouraging for Gephardt. The crowds at four Gephardt events Saturday ranged from about 70 to 150. Shortly after he spoke at a restaurant in Clear Lake, Dean arrived in nearby Mason City, accompanied by Al Gore and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who have endorsed him. Two hundred-fifty people crowded in to the hall to see Dean, dozens more were turned away for lack of space.