WASHINGTON - Of all the declared and prospective Democratic presidential candidates for 2004, none has a stronger political reason than the former House minority leader, Dick Gephardt, to want to see President Bush's invasion against Iraq get under way and succeed swiftly.
In kicking off his second quest for the Oval Office, Mr. Gephardt needs just such a rapid and positive conclusion to the war, for which he has been a leading Democratic cheerleader in Congress. If combat were to drag on into next year's campaign, he would be extremely vulnerable within a party even now smoldering over the wisdom and imperative of going after Saddam Hussein.
As the party's leader in the House last fall, Mr. Gephardt joined with the Senate Democratic Leader, Tom Daschle, in urging fellow Democrats to back the Bush war resolution for the tactical objective of getting the Iraq war issue "off the table" before the November elections.
They reasoned, wrongly, that doing so would then focus voters' minds on the sluggish economy and rising jobless rates and persuade them to vote Democratic, enabling the party to retain Senate control and regain the House.
That optimistic vision, which would have installed Mr. Gephardt as speaker of the House, crumbled in the face of the aggressive selling of George W. Bush as a wartime president calling on the nation to rally around him. The off-year elections marked the fourth straight failure of Mr. Gephardt's diligent campaign to win back the House - hardly a political record on which to build an upbeat campaign for his party's next presidential nomination.
Despite Mr. Gephardt's pitch for support of the war resolution, 126 House Democrats (60 percent) voted against it. That negative sentiment has since been heard in growing opposition within the party to invading Iraq, particularly without another U.N. resolution.
All of this makes Mr. Gephardt an obvious target of voices in the Democratic ranks who deplore the party's at best muddled message on war with Iraq. So far, the loudest of those voices are coming from declared or prospective presidential candidates with limited political clout or credibility. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton are regarded as having barks louder than their bites.
Of the others, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont is bidding strongly to establish himself as the most credible anti-war candidate, as seen in hard-hitting remarks last week in Iowa, the first state on the 2004 calendar for selecting national convention delegates. Mr. Gephardt, from neighboring Missouri, won Iowa's caucuses in 1988 and thus is under pressure to repeat or be seen as old goods.
So from a strictly personal political viewpoint, the Missouri congressman must hope that Mr. Bush's aggressiveness will succeed in getting the Iraq issue "off the table" with dispatch, clearing the way for a presidential campaign based on the economy of the sort that failed to materialize in November's off-year elections.
On a range of domestic issues, Mr. Gephardt brings impressive credentials, particularly with organized labor, as an outspoken foe of the administration's international trade policies. In his formal announcement speech in St. Louis the other day, he took a step few Democrats have dared try - calling for ending Mr. Bush's huge 2001 tax cuts, rejecting the new ones he seeks and pumping the money into health care insurance for all American workers.
In 1988, Mr. Gephardt proved himself to be a dogged and intelligent, if not charismatic, campaigner as a generally middle-road Democrat. He was the first chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council,, which in the intervening 16 years has established itself as the ideological home of the "New Democrats" as personified by Bill Clinton.
But Mr. Gephardt's trade policies have moved him away from that orbit, with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, also a former DLC chairman, claiming its allegiance.
Mr. Lieberman, like Mr. Gephardt, is solidly behind Mr. Bush on the Iraqi war, so he, too, will want a quick and successful end to it. Nothing in the Bush game plan for Iraq envisions that war to be going on by next year, but its aftermath - what to do with a postwar Iraq and unsettled Arab world - could well assure a vigorous foreign policy debate among the Democratic candidates in 2004.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.