Jackson's sweet dream

By SCOT LEHIGH  |  March 7, 2008

Everything is geared toward that electronic window on the world. In Birmingham, Alabama, the campaign has cobbled together a stop at the Steelworkers’ union hall to provide the backdrop for his K car message. In Mobile, Alabama, the backdrop is a black church (where it requires two takes to get the candidate striding in to the strains of the black choir’s “Amazing Grace.”) In Winston-Salem the setting is a roundtable discussion with displaced members of the Communication Workers of America. Everywhere, the central thrust of Gephardt’s message is that he alone among the candidates is willing to stand up to foreign competitors.

In a Sunday speech to the Alabama Press Association, Gephardt sharpens his critique of Al Gore and Mike Dukakis. “While his own state of Massachusetts lost 2500 jobs when GM closed down a plant, Governor Dukakis continues to oppose the Gephardt Amendment to fight for American workers and demand fairness for American products,” he told the scribes. “And while the region Senator Gore claims to represent is suffering all the effects of a weak and heedless trade policy, while jobs and opportunity are being sacrificed wholesale here and in the South, Senator Gore, too, continues to oppose the Gephardt Amendment. Governor Dukakis talks competence; Senator Gore talks strength—but there is nothing competent or strong about a trade policy that fails to defend America—a trade policy that can only widen the window of our economic vulnerability.” When he finishes, the Alabama journalists give him a standing ovation. “He did a fine job,” association executive director Bill Keller says later. “My fellas don’t usually applaud like that.”

Nor does the national media. For the past month, Gephardt has been buffeted by a storm of media criticism on both his trade bill and his many changes of position, even as he has weathered repeated broadsides from his opponents. At the Saturday, February 27, Atlanta Constitution debate, Gephardt was once again the punching bag of choice. Dukakis excoriated him for his vote for the 1981 Reagan tax cut and declared the Gephardt Amendment dead and awaiting a post-Super Tuesday burial. Gephardt’s strategists were not unhappy with the outcome; they think Dukakis’s attacks only helped highlight Gephardt’s tax-cutting credentials and trade populism.

Still, the pervasive bad press, the attacks from other candidates, and the new negative ads Dukakis is running about Gephardt’s acceptance of PAC money are taking their toll. Just a few months ago, the Gephardt people thought they might win both Florida and Texas, Super Tuesday’s two largest prizes. Now Super Tuesday, like Iowa and South Dakota, has become a fight to survive, with the battle lines drawn in delegate-rich Texas. Gephardt desperately needs to win there. Should he lose that state to any of his competitors, his candidacy will be badly crippled as the race moves north again.

The Missouri congressman has considerable strength in the Lone Star State, including the support of many of his congressional colleagues. Ten Texas congressmen (out of a total of 27) will be campaigning for him across the expanse of Texas. Gephardt is running an ad narrated by Texas congressman Marvin Leath that features a shot of the 35 Southern congressman who have endorsed him, stresses his positions on trade, agriculture, and the oil-import fee, and strongly implies that, of all the Democrats, the Missouri congressman has the best chance of being elected. But the other issues aside, the real question remains, in Simon press secretary Terry Michael’s formulation, “whether Dick Gephardt can gas up his K car and drive it through the living rooms of the South.” If that K car can’t carry Dick Gephardt and his considerable political baggage across the Texas finish line, Gephardt’s candidacy will have stalled in the very region he once hoped would provide a decisive victory for him.

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