- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

When the Teamsters union decided Friday to endorse Rep. Richard A. Gephardt for president, it was not because he is one of the strongest front-runners for his party’s nomination — he isn’t.

The Missouri Democrat is struggling to hold a one-point lead in Iowa, his strongest state, against once-little-known former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont who has surged in popularity there on the coattails of the antiwar movement.

At fourth place in New Hampshire with 9 percent, according to a Boston Herald poll last weekend, Mr. Gephardt badly trails Mr. Dean at 28 percent and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts at 25 percent. The political terrain looks similarly dismal in other states for the House Democratic leader, who is making his second try for the presidency.

But the 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters endorsed him because “Gephardt has been a great friend of labor, particularly on one of the most important issues we face — the trade issue — and we very much like his health care plan,” said Mike Mathis, the union’s chief political director.

“We believe he is a very viable candidate. If he is not our party’s nominee, we will re-evaluate,” Mr. Mathis said.

The union’s decison to embrace Mr. Gephardt on the basis of issues first and not how he is doing in Democratic polls or in fund-raising, where he has also been weak, is a demonstration of how organized labor decides who it will support.

Other party strategists think that another criteria should be as important, even more important: Who has the best chance of restricting President Bush to a single term?

“The battle has intensified as we enter a new phase approaching Labor Day. The issue must remain electability and who can beat Bush in 2004,” said veteran Democratic adviser Donna Brazile, who managed the 2000 White House campaign of Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joe Lieberman.

With five months to go before the start of next year’s primary season, Miss Brazile says the race has essentially boiled down to two rivalries: “Kerry versus Dean” in the first tier and “Gephardt versus Lieberman” in the second tier. Everyone else trails in the lower single digits.

Party members “must keep their eyes on the real prize — beating Bush and stopping the Republican electoral tide,” she said.

But Mr. Mathis of the Teamsters said he is “hoping that as it becomes apparent that Gephardt is seen as a stronger candidate, and hopefully that the AFL-CIO will endorse Gephardt at some point, other people will see him as an alternative for the nomination.”

Nonetheless, as the race speeds into the final weeks of summer, it was hard to see where Mr. Gephardt was showing real strength outside of Iowa.

Mr. Lieberman, who leads in most of the national polls because of his high name recognition, has similar problems in the early contests. He was in third place with 11 percent in New Hampshire, the Boston Herald poll reported.

Notably, Mr. Dean is the only candidate who is near the top in both Iowa and New Hampshire, though he remains relatively unknown in the rest of the country.

These two contests will be followed by a second tier of primaries on Feb. 3 that includes South Carolina, where the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York was expected to show some support because of the state’s large black vote.

A poll of 501 likely voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary conducted by John Zogby last week showed Mr. Lieberman in first place with 13 percent, followed by Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Sharpton in second place, each with 8 percent. A sizeable 42 percent said they were undecided.

“The most significant thing here is that no one Democrat has caught on beyond Iowa and New Hampshire polling,” Mr. Zogby said. “With only six months to go before Iowa and seven months before South Carolina, there is no magic name rising above the pack.”

Particularly disturbing to Democratic Party leaders, Zogby found that four out of 10 Democratic voters (40 percent) “said they wished other candidates were in the race.”

“It’s no small wonder that we now hear names like Al Gore, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and even Wesley Clark being dropped,” he said.

Nearly two-thirds of the Democratic voters polled by Mr. Zogby said that no matter who they voted for, they believed that Mr. Bush would be re-elected. More than one in three Democratic voters, or 38 percent, gave the president a favorable job performance rating.

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