NEVADA, Iowa - Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, locked in a desperate struggle for survival in the Democratic presidential contest, unleashed a blistering attack on front-runner Howard Dean yesterday.
His sweeping, and highly personal, condemnation of Dean also served to underscore the bleak reality Gephardt faces in Monday's caucuses. With his campaign running out of money and his prospects in the early primary states uncertain at best, the veteran Missouri congressman needs a victory in Iowa to keep his long political career alive.
But the decision to turn up the heat on Dean runs a risk of hurting Gephardt as well. If it succeeds, the attack could wind up indirectly benefiting two candidates already breathing down Gephardt's neck - Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. The two senators appear to be surging in the closing days of the increasingly negative, and volatile, Iowa contest.
"We're gonna win! We're going from Iowa to New Hampshire and all the other states. We're going to take back the White House," Gephardt shouted to a small group of supporters in this rural central Iowa community, after delivering his harshest sustained attack of the campaign against Dean.
Gephardt said the only way that Democrats could defeat President Bush "is to be clear about where we stand and to be completely truthful with the American people."
In the speech, Gephardt portrayed Dean as a "weather-vane Democrat" who is unprepared for the presidency. Stopping just short of calling him a liar, Gephardt accused the former Vermont governor of being on both sides of such issues as trade, Medicare, gun control and favors for American corporations.
"It's become nearly impossible to know what Howard Dean really believes," Gephardt said, urging Iowans to reject what he described as Dean's "cynical politics of manufactured anger and false conviction."
Referring to repeated instances in which Dean has made impolitic statements, Gephardt said he had come to believe that "Howard Dean knows exactly what he's saying when he says it. And if you think he's contradicting himself, well, as far as he's concerned, that's your problem and not his."
The 62-year-old congressman, perhaps the most traditional Democrat in the 2004 field, said he was the candidate best able to represent his party's values.
"I may not be the flashiest guy in the race," Gephardt said, "but I'll put my ideas up against anyone's."
In the final days before Monday's caucuses, the Iowa campaign has turned into a free-for-all. The candidates, in their TV ads and appearances around the state, are exchanging rapid-fire accusations to try to convert undecided caucus-goers and persuade others to change their minds at the last minute.
Polls show Dean, who also leads nationally, with a fairly steady, if slender, Iowa advantage, despite being pounded for weeks by his rivals. As he kicked off his own closing drive for the caucuses last night, Dean returned to the outsider theme that first lifted him to the forefront of the Democratic race.
"This Monday, the people of Iowa have the power to tell the political establishment and the special interests that we have come to reclaim our government," he said in remarks prepared for a rally at the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. "Over the last few weeks, the Washington insiders have come at us with everything they have."
But Gephardt, noting earlier that Dean has been piling up endorsements in recent weeks from prominent Democrats in Washington and around the country, said the front-runner could no longer claim to be the anti-establishment candidate.
"Maybe I'm the outsider candidate now," Gephardt joked with a straight face.
Gephardt, who is proudly running on his more than three decades of experience in government, will never be mistaken for an outsider. But he's increasingly seen as an underdog, including here in Iowa, a state he had once been expected to win.
One top Dean campaign aide said he wouldn't be surprised if Gephardt finished fourth - a development that wouldn't necessarily work to Dean's advantage: It would mean that Kerry and Edwards had pulled off better-than-expected finishes in Iowa, heading into the New Hampshire primary eight days later.
Gephardt's campaign is gambling that attacking Dean will take votes away from the front-runner without hurting the congressman, whose backers have been with him, in many cases, for nearly 20 years and are considered more likely to remain loyal on Monday night than are supporters of other candidates.
"We still think this is largely a Dean-Gephardt race," said David Plouffe, a senior Gephardt adviser.
One Gephardt aide acknowledged privately that Kerry and Edwards have become "magnets" for undecided voters and that few, if any, of those voters are likely to choose Gephardt, a longtime fixture on the Iowa scene. That could make Gephardt's strategy of going negative in the closing days of the race a perilous one. The danger is that Gephardt could help Kerry or Edwards, or both, push past him.
But Steve Murphy, Gephardt's campaign manager, said he saw little risk that Kerry or Edwards would benefit because "we don't think they have the ground forces to deliver in the caucuses."
A tracking poll by Zogby International, released yesterday by MSNBC and Reuters, showed Kerry pulling into a tie with Gephardt for second place. Edwards, who has also been gaining, was within striking distance, in fourth place.
Officials in the Dean and Gephardt campaigns say the competitive four-way race means the winner may need less than 30 percent of the vote Monday night. Most polling has shown Dean with between 25 percent and 30 percent, with Gephardt next in the low-to-mid 20s. Kerry has been running in the high teens or low 20s, with Edwards gaining into the mid-teens.
Gephardt, who is not running for re-election to Congress and would presumably leave politics if he failed to make the national ticket this year, is depending heavily on the forces of organized labor to keep him competitive in this state. But his campaign suffered a setback last week when Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa's most popular Democrat and a longtime Gephardt ally, endorsed Dean instead.
That rankled some longtime supporters of Gephardt and Harkin, such as Paul Peterson, 79, a retired agricultural conservation worker in rural Story County in central Iowa.
"Why would Harkin take that rinky-dink guy from the East, who's such a flip-flop, and endorse him?" Peterson said. "I feel like Gephardt is part of the Midwest. He understands people like us."
Larry Honeck, 65, of State Center, Iowa, said he was "kind of worried about Dean" winning the state. A retired member of the United Auto Workers, whose Iowa affiliate is working on Gephardt's behalf, Honeck said he has supported the Missouri congressman since 1988 but acknowledged that he "hasn't heard much talk about Gephardt at all" this time.
Gephardt, who first began running for president in Iowa nearly 20 years ago, had to break off campaigning in the state this week to raise money in New York, Illinois and California. He denies his campaign is broke, though it has fallen short of fund-raising targets. Aides have said there is enough money to carry Gephardt into the early February primaries. But they've been counting on an Iowa victory to replenish the campaign's bank account.
Gephardt's attack on Dean as inconsistent prompted criticism of the congressman from the National Right to Life Committee, which pointed out that he had switched positions on abortion, from opposing abortion to favoring abortion rights, before his first presidential run.
Asked about those and other shifts over the years, Gephardt told reporters that "all of us have evolutions on issues." But he said Dean's were more relevant because the former governor had been "all over the lot" on issues that are critical to the Democrats' effort to defeat Bush.