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Battle in Iowa

November 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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GROUP: No more Bush! No more Bush! No more Bush!

MARGARET WARNER: Thousands of Iowa Democrats poured into Des Moines last weekend to hear their presidential candidates lambaste President Bush…

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I’ve served with five presidents. This one is by far the worst. He doesn’t know what he’s doing!

MARGARET WARNER: …And cheer their candidates’ vows to defeat him.

JOHN KERRY: Tonight marks the beginning of the end of the Bush presidency! (Cheers)

HOWARD DEAN: And this time, Mr. President, we’re going to have more votes than you are. And this time, Mr. President, the person with the most votes is going to the White House.

(Raucous cheering)

MARGARET WARNER: Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses are still two months away. Yet the campaign here has an energy and passion more typical of the final days, says Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen.

DAVID YEPSEN: This caucus is more intense than any I’ve ever seen in 30 years of covering this thing. There’s a lot of anger about Bush. Democrats want to beat George Bush and so they’re turning out.

MARGARET WARNER: It wasn’t supposed to be this competitive this soon. Dick Gephardt, a well-known, well-liked congressman from nearby Missouri, was the odds-on favorite to win the 2004 caucuses, just as he did in 1988. But he’s got a fight on his hands.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: This is a tight competition. Iowa will be hard to win. Assume nothing.

GROUP: We want Dean! We want Dean!

MARGARET WARNER: The reason is this man, Dr. Howard Dean.

HOWARD DEAN: Hi. I’m Howard Dean.

MARGARET WARNER: Early this summer, the former Vermont governor began barnstorming the state’s 99 counties, and running TV spots criticizing his Washington rivals.

HOWARD DEAN: I’m Howard Dean. I’m running for president because the only way to beat George Bush is to stand up to him. I opposed the war with Iraq when too many other Democrats supported it.

MARGARET WARNER: Dean hammers the same issue on the stump.

HOWARD DEAN: A misguided war in Iraq was sold to the American people, supported by Democrats who should have asked more questions before they voted last October. The truth is that Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States of America. We were told that was true, and it was false. (Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: The result: seesawing polls. Dean overtook Gephardt’s April lead in August. Gephardt reclaimed a modest lead early this month. Senator John Kerry is holding a solid third. After an ice hockey game Saturday, he declared he’s not out of the running either.

JOHN KERRY: I’m five points away from Howard Dean in Iowa. That’s nothing. Five points.

MARGARET WARNER: The only other two Democrats making a play in Iowa, Sen. John Edwards and…

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I’m a congressman from Ohio running for president.

MARGARET WARNER: …Congressman Dennis Kucinich, are stuck in single digits. The stakes are huge for the two current front-runners, especially for the under-funded Gephardt.

SPOKESMAN: Dick Gephardt has to win Iowa or he’s going to be out of the race. If Howard Dean can beat Dick Gephardt in Iowa and beat John Kerry in New Hampshire, he’s going to create a bow wave in front of him that may make him unstoppable for the nomination.

MARGARET WARNER: We found Iowa Democrats measuring the field against one test above all: Who can beat President Bush?

MARGARET WARNER: What are you looking for in trying to choose between the Democrats?

BETTY WINOKUR, Retired Social Worker: A winner. (Laughs) That’s mostly what I’m interested in.

MARGARET WARNER: On the issues, Gephardt and Dean sound remarkably alike. Both attack the president’s $3 trillion tax cuts, and say they’d roll them back to fund health insurance. (Applause) Both men attack President Bush for isolating America in the world and in Iraq, and vow they’d handle things differently.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: He went to the U.N. and said, “We’re going to do this with our without you. Have a nice day.” Is that a way to get people to help you?

HOWARD DEAN: I will restore the honor and the dignity and the respect that this country deserves around the rest of the world by engaging in a foreign policy based on cooperation, and not confrontation. (Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: But they present themselves as very different men and potential leaders. Gephardt’s populist pitch to voters is that he’s one of them; he understands their hardships because of his own modest upbringing and his own family’s struggles, like the near-death of his young son, Matt, from cancer.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I remember walking in the room. He was in the crib. He was 18 months old. I couldn’t talk to him. I couldn’t explain why he was in such pain. And all I could do is grab him and hold him and not let him go, because I didn’t think we had a shot. A few days later, the doctor said, “We found some new therapies. We don’t think they’ll work. Your insurance will cover it.” Magic phrase.

MARGARET WARNER: Matt survived. He’s 32 today.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: He’s a gift of God. He shouldn’t be here. But he’s here because we had insurance.

MARGARET WARNER: And so should everyone, Gephardt says.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: This in the end is a moral issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Gephardt, whose father was a Teamster, also proudly embraces his long support for labor. He’s counting on members of nearly two dozen unions, like cement plant worker Mike Dunn, to organize and turn out for him.

MARGARET WARNER: Why are you for Dick Gephardt?

MIKE DUNN: Jobs. It’s just … it’s all about jobs to me and our membership. We’ve lost so many good industrial jobs overseas, down in Mexico. Gephardt has consistently voted against NAFTA and all free trade agreements, and we want to bring our jobs back to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Above all, on the stump and in his TV spots, Gephardt touts his experience as Democratic leader in Congress, passing legislation like the ’93 Clinton economic plan.

ANNOUNCER: Democratic leader Dick Gephardt digs in and wins the fight in congress by one vote. The result: The longest expansion ever. Millions of new jobs.

MARGARET WARNER: Sitting at a cafe Sunday, Gephardt argued that his career in Congress would be a stronger selling point against President Bush than Dean’s record in Vermont.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: He has said he balanced the budget in Vermont. That’s great. But I’ve balanced the budget of the United States. My experience is important in this race. And I think Americans — especially with terrorism and all the problems we have — are not going to want to give this responsibility to somebody they’re not sure about their ability to handle the problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Howard Dean touts his experience, too, as a governor who solved real-life problems.

HOWARD DEAN: In my state, everyone under 18 has health insurance. In my state, everybody under 150 percent of poverty has health insurance. In my state, we got tired of waiting for Washington, so one-third of all our seniors have prescription benefits.

MARGARET WARNER: Dean has a populist pitch, too, of a different sort than Gephardt’s. He doesn’t speak about his wealthy upbringing. But he projects himself as a political outsider who identifies with the alienation people feel from their government.

HOWARD DEAN: The biggest lie that’s told by people like me at election time to people like you is that if you vote for me, I’m going to fix all your problems. The truth is, the power to change this country is in your hands, not mine. And you have the power to take this party back and make it stand up for something again. (Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: Dean’s pitch has energized all kinds of voters. He’s used the Internet to harness that energy and build a formidable grassroots team that includes professionals, three unions, and even many students. They’ve rarely participated in caucuses before, but insist they will for Howard Dean. David Sitzky is a high school senior from Dubuque.

DAVID SITZKY: If you look at this, there’s so much energy in this room, that he brings young people and gets young people excited. He’s the first candidate in a while to show young people they do have a vote and it does matter.

MARGARET WARNER: Riding between campaign stops, Dean argued that Gephardt’s years in Congress and his cooperation with President Bush on issues like the Iraq War would undercut him with voters.

HOWARD DEAN: We can’t win without standing up for what we believe in. It’s why we haven’t won much lately. We need new leadership in this country and we’re not going to get it with Dick, with all due respect to Dick, who I voted for in 1988. We’re not going to get it from somebody who spent 27 years in Congress making deals with the very people he now says he opposes.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Maybe he hasn’t followed what’s been going on since 1994. I led the effort against the Republican Revolution. I’d say I opposed them on 95 percent of what they came up with over the ten years they’ve been in charge of the House and 95 percent of what George Bush wanted to do. I didn’t elect George Bush. I’m sorry he’s president. I’m trying to get rid of him. But he happens to be right now the only president we have.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, voters challenge him on his vote for the war and the latest $87 billion funding bill. Gephardt has an answer.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I don’t think it’s responsible to say to our young people who are over there dodging bullets every day that we’re not behind them. But we have to see this thing through.

MARGARET WARNER: After Dean overtook him in the polls, Gephardt mounted a fierce counterattack. A Gephardt-sponsored Web site, deanfacts.com, charges that Governor Dean backed Republican efforts to slash Medicare and Social Security, and send American jobs overseas through trade agreements like NAFTA, then flip-flopped on the issues when he became a candidate for president.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: We’ve got to have a candidate who can go up against Bush on privatization of Medicare. We’ve got to have somebody who can go up against bush on trade laws.

MARGARET WARNER: Not surprisingly, in a state where three-fourths of past caucus-goers have been over 50 or union members, Dean gets questions about all this.

HOWARD DEAN: One of the things you find when you’re in the lead, you often find yourself taking buckshot of out your rear end. (Laughter) Do not believe all these things politicians are telling you: “He’s going to cut this. He’s against Medicare.” Well, God knows what else they said. It’s not true.

MARGARET WARNER: Privately, he expresses frustration at Gephardt’s attack.

HOWARD DEAN: He’s scaring seniors with talk about Medicare, just like Democrats have always done.

MARGARET WARNER: He says you said it was the worst federal program ever.

HOWARD DEAN: I did. Because it was the worst administered federal program ever doesn’t mean I want to get rid of Medicare. You would never get rid of Medicare in your right mind if you’re a physician. But it’s a badly run program and it needs to be fixed.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the things that he’s saying about you, that you have changed your position?

HOWARD DEAN: Of course I’ve changed my position. You’d have to be an idiot not to change your position based on facts. I was a supporter of NAFTA and a supporter of WTO. But the evidence is they haven’t helped working people in America. They haven’t created more jobs.

MARGARET WARNER: With two months to go, many voters still seem in a quandary. Kathy Hayes came to hear Gephardt Sunday, but left still undecided.

KATHY HAYES, Retired Librarian: Gephardt is a good, solid candidate. He has good positions, possibly is more “electable” than Dean. But we were at the dinner last night, the Jefferson/Jackson Dinner. And Howard Dean has just a rousing stump speech. You just can’t help but stand up and say, “Yes, yes, yes. Throw them out!” So we’re still thinking about it. (Cheers and applause)

MARGARET WARNER: Dean’s rivals are trying to counteract his surge by suggesting he lacks the experience to be president, and the temperament as well.

JOHN KERRY: We need to offer answers, not just anger. We need to offer solutions, not just slogans.

MARGARET WARNER: Dean rejects his rivals’ criticism.

HOWARD DEAN: It’s not anger. It’s hope. That’s why they don’t get it either. People in some ways really want a doctor. It’s really odd. I’ve thought about this a lot. What you do as a doctor, people basically heal themselves most of the time. The doctor’s job for the most part is to set forth a clear plan and recruit the positive part of the patient to execute that plan. And to give confidence to that person that we can succeed again. That’s all I’m doing is giving people confidence. And they’re not going to have it from guys who have spent their whole lives in Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about his rivals’ charge that he’s arrogant?

HOWARD DEAN: It depends on what you mean by arrogance. I do have strong opinions. When people get in my face, I tend to get back in theirs. And you know, maybe there’s a little arrogance there. But maybe the American people want a president who gets in somebody’s face when they get in theirs. Certainly, Democrats like my getting in the president’s face.

MARGARET WARNER: Gephardt sidesteps a question about Dean’s temperament, but he says it is an important criterion in a president.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Of course it is. You’ve got to be a human being who can work well with other human beings, who can work well with Congress, who can work well with other leaders in the world and be open and respectful of other people, always.

MARGARET WARNER: Voters tell us this: They tell us they really like your experience, but they also respond to the anger and passion in Howard Dean.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: The key to this nomination is I think is showing both frustration and even anger with what George Bush has failed to do to lead this country. But you’ve also got to give bright, optimistic, bold proposals, and you’ve got to be likeable at the end of all of it.

MARGARET WARNER: The competition is sure to intensify. Dean and Kerry opted out of public financing last week, so they’re free to spend as much as they want here. Both launched new Iowa ads this week. Dean’s attacks Gephardt by name.

DEAN CAMPAIGN AD ANNOUNCER: October 2002: Dick Gephardt agrees to co-author the Iraq war resolution, giving George Bush the authority to go to war.

MARGARET WARNER: Gephardt knows he’ll be outspent. And with 20 percent of the voters undecided, and no one quite sure who will turn out, the next two months should be a wild ride.