Hill Climb

For months now Democratic presidential candidates have been trying to generate interest in their bids for the White House by "officially" announcing their campaigns -- despite the fact that they have already been campaigning, in some cases, for more than a year. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) relaunched his bid on Sept. 2 in South Carolina, with an aircraft carrier providing a visually pleasing backdrop. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) soon followed suit, starting his campaign anew in his hometown of Robbins, N.C., on Sept. 16.

Neither of these staged events provided the candidates with the boost they were hoping for. In fact, of those who've been running -- officially or not -- for quite a while now, only one has succeeded in attracting renewed media attention halfway through the pre-primary campaign: former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Gephardt didn't make a splashy re-entry into the race. Rather, he got some positive attention after The Washington Post reported that GOP consultants believe he is the candidate who could most likely cost President Bush a second term -- a change from earlier this year, when those same consultants said Edwards would be the toughest Democrat to beat. In a recent National Journal survey, Democratic consultants rated Gephardt second to former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) in terms of electability. Other newspapers reported on the plausibility of a Gephardt win -- and suddenly a trend was born.

This renewed interest in Gephardt is surprising for several reasons. The first is that there's still a real possibility that he could lose the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses. Given that he won them in 1988, hails from a neighboring state and has invested so much time and energy in Iowa, he's going to come under tremendous pressure to drop out of the crowded race if he doesn't win there.

And even if Gephardt takes Iowa and makes a respectable showing in New Hampshire, he could face trouble in South Carolina, where the support of black voters will be key. Gephardt's position on the war has been especially unpopular with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of whom told The Hill earlier this year, "Gephardt's largest problem is that he started out so enthusiastically supporting this president's war."

If Gephardt is indeed rousing the Democratic troops, he's achieving a goal that eluded him as his party's House leader for eight years. After Democrats lost the House of Representatives in 1994, lawmakers became increasingly frustrated as they were unable to regain control in future elections, eventually losing additional seats to boot. They also felt that Gephardt failed to give them a coherent message to take home to voters about why they should be the majority party again. As Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), who endorsed Edwards, told The Hill last month, "I was never impressed with [Gephardt]. He kept doing the same things over and over again and losing. He also exaggerated some things."

Granted, Gephardt leads the other candidates in piling up endorsements from lawmakers, with more than 30 to his name. But the fact that Gephardt hasn't slam-dunked support from his colleagues -- plenty of representatives have come out in favor of other candidates -- says something about his leadership in Congress. After all, he's been there for 26 years and presumably has done enough favors for lawmakers as the party's leader that they might feel they need to repay him. Yet many have said that other candidates have better policy proposals -- and better chances of winning.

Gephardt has announced that this term in Congress will be his last. He has no committee assignments, which means his full-time job is basically campaigning for president. While other lawmakers running for president are still balancing their campaigns with their full congressional duties, many Democrats were only too happy to see Gephardt turn the party's leadership reins over to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). At least they know she's giving her full attention to helping Democrats develop a message, raise money and try to retake the House.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh in judging Gephardt by his time on the Hill. But his record in Congress is one of his major selling points as a candidate, and it's the only record voters can use to predict what he would be like as president. If he succeeds in exciting the base enough to win the nomination, more power to him. But if his leadership skills couldn't generate enough enthusiasm to rally the troops on Capitol Hill -- those who were already converted to the cause -- that raises legitimate questions about his ability to ignite a fire among rank-and-file Democrats and those all-important swing voters.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.