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Gephardt On Track With Fast-Track Win, Perpetual Also-Ran Now Serious White House Contender

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt has been out in the political cold for so long, it’s surprising he hasn’t begun to turn a bit blue.

First welfare reform, then tax policy and then the balanced budget. He opposed President Clinton on all those issues and lost. But this week, on the politically symbolic issue of trade policy, the Missouri lawmaker finally won and is being hailed for his political adroitness.

So color Gephardt pink, flush with victory - and darken the mood at the White House, particularly for Vice President Al Gore.

Gephardt clearly boosted his presidential hopes in the 2000 election by out-dueling Clinton on a House vote over whether the president should have “fast track” power to negotiate trade deals that can’t be changed in Congress. His success at projecting his image as a guardian of worker rights buttresses his appeal to blue-collar voters for whom the words “global economy” mean at best, anxiety, or at worst, unemployment. Gore, meanwhile, was wounded, even though he stayed largely out of view while Clinton waged the battle and took the blame for the loss.

“You’ve got to score one for organized labor and Gephardt,” said Gary LaPaille, a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and head of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.

But while hourly workers are a core Democratic group, “that doesn’t make for a national election victory at the presidential level,” said Bert Rockman, who teaches political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

If President Clinton’s re-election is any guide for White House Democratic hopefuls, the party has to embrace more concerns than those of just union voters. More and more, suburban, middle-class voters are becoming crucial for both parties.

The trade policy debate shows just how tricky it will be for Gore or Gephardt, or whomever the party’s 2000 nominee is, to find ways of appealing to all of the party without alienating key supporters.

LaPaille discovered that last month at a Democratic forum in an Illinois carpenters union hall. LaPaille, who also is the Illinois state Democratic chairman, was passing out material trumpeting Clinton’s accomplishments.

But the handouts included a push to give the president fast-track authority, and union members saw red.

“I must have had 10 members of organized labor summon me to the rear of chamber,” LaPaille said. “They were ready to almost kick us out of the union hall. I had to get up and apologize.”

Presidents usually don’t lose on key issues, and rarely is defeat dealt by their allies. Gephardt’s management of the issue shows political strength that was not visible in previous battles with the White House.

“He did something that is pretty rare in national politics,” said Robert Shrum, a Democratic strategist. “He stood up in disagreement with a president of his own party and carried the day.”

Still, the real damage to the president, the boost for Gephardt, and the split in the party might be overstated.

“It shows the divisions with the Democratic Party, but it’s a division in a political sense that’s inconsequential,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “When the Democratic Party was divided over race, that was a division. When the Democratic Party was divided over the war in Vietnam, that was a division. The division over trade is nothing compared to them.”

What Gephardt has earned is a sense of wariness from the White House about the next issue on which he might challenge the president. Already, Gore’s office reportedly is pushing for the president to talk about taxes on the middle class during his State of the Union speech in January. Gephardt has proposed a tax plan to help middle-class taxpayers.

Even with that and the labor movement supporting him, Gephardt’s window for 2000 might be very narrow. If, three years from now, the president is still popular and the economy remains strong, the vice president would be difficult to topple as the party’s standard-bearer.

If the economy sours, Gephardt might be able to use his views on trade, taxes and the balanced budget - the high-profile issues where he has abandoned Clinton - to argue that his way would have avoided problems.

However, a bad economy also might prompt voters to reject Democrats altogether. Gephardt’s timing might be wrong in either case.

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