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Gephardt's Last Stand

From the December 22, 2003 issue: The Iowa showdown.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By DAVID TELL
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Then there's the matter of how the Dean people look and sound. They "tend to be somewhat younger than voters who prefer Gephardt," as the Pew paper blandly notes. And they are unusually passionate--whether or not "voting their hearts" is the right phrase for it--about their cause. Also in my lap during the flight out to Des Moines is this morning's New York Times Magazine, whose cover story, "The Dean Swarm," is a deadpan and dazzling piece of psychological investigative reporting into the youth movement that is propelling this year's Democratic front-runner. The Pew numbers reflect a Dean campaign that isn't really about issues per se. This Times story implies that the Dean campaign isn't even about Howard Dean, really.

A 24-year-old Dean field organizer, who "broke into tears several times while trying to explain" the point, tells freelancer Samantha M. Shapiro that for her, "the thought that he'll be president is a side effect. This campaign is about allowing people to come together and tell their life stories." Shapiro introduces us to 21-year-old Gary Brooks, who "drove from Alabama to Burlington at the beginning of last summer, after hearing Dean on the radio just once." Brooks now shares a cubicle with 20-year-old Zack Rosen, who dropped out of college and moved to Vermont--"I just knew this is the guy"--after reading about Dean on the campaign website for all of 20 minutes. Rosen admits, however, that he'd probably still be back in school had his first serious girlfriend not broken up with him last spring. Similarly, Rosen's 26-year-old colleague Clay Johnson got involved after a young woman named Merrill told him she didn't love him anymore. Johnson "stripped to his underwear, lay on the floor in a fetal position and remained there for days, occasionally sipping from an old carton of orange juice." Alarmed, Johnson's friends scratched their heads for a way to snap him out of it. "Finally they hit on one: Howard Dean."

IT'S A FAIRLY SAFE GUESS that no one in Iowa is backing Richard Gephardt for president because otherwise he'd be lying half-naked in a fetal position mourning a lost girlfriend. Gephardt voters are an older crowd, people in their 40s and 50s and 60s, most of whom probably haven't had a girlfriend for a very long time--since they typically show up at his community meetings with their wives in tow--and few of whom could afford to lie around in a fetal position even if they wanted to, because they have to work for a living, generally with their hands. These are overwhelmingly blue-collar affairs. There's a rickety-looking "Boilermakers for Gephardt" van parked outside all three events I attend today, one of the many ancillary services being provided to the candidate by the "Alliance for Economic Justice," an ad hoc coalition of trade unions who've endorsed his campaign. And inside, at each stop, ID buttons from one or another of these unions adorn an overwhelming majority of audience and volunteer-staffer lapels.

Dick Gephardt's union support is less than uniform, of course, as he is constantly reminded by the newspapers. Back in October, he was denied the umbrella labor-movement endorsement he'd badly wanted when the AFL-CIO's executive board decided to keep the organization officially neutral in the Democratic primaries. And last month the movement's two largest members, the government workers' union AFSCME and the Service Employees International, actually defected to Howard Dean. A bitter, distracting rift has since developed in the House of Labor, with pro-Gephardt industrial unions accusing AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, who himself once led the Service Employees, of bias and betrayal. And in purely practical terms--given the extra manpower and financial help involved: phone banks, mail drops, election-night voter roundups--yes, Dick Gephardt would unquestionably be better fixed to win the Democratic nomination had Howard Dean not managed to poach a significant chunk of his labor base. The AFSCME defection alone, Gephardt privately fumed at the time, may effectively have "turned over the country to Republicans for four more years."