DES MOINES, Feb. 20 -- It did not take long for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt to grasp that Iraq will pose a big challenge to his hopes of making the Iowa caucuses the launching pad in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
At Gephardt's first news conference as a declared candidate, held at a college here Wednesday evening, seven of the 12 questions centered on the former House minority leader's decision last autumn to help President Bush win congressional approval of a resolution authorizing force to disarm Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The others dealt with campaign strategy and prospects.
Gephardt (D-Mo.) staunchly defended his stance, which makes him, along with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the most outspoken ally of Bush's policy in the big Democratic field. Lieberman and Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) voted for the companion Senate resolution, but none played as prominent a leadership role in getting it through as Gephardt did.
Kerry and Edwards have criticized aspects of the administration's approach, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) have opposed the resolution and a war with Iraq.
None of them has as much riding on the Iowa caucuses as does Gephardt. He won Iowa in his first bid for the nomination in 1988, and a loss in January might cripple his candidacy.
But many Iowa Democratic activists are part of the peace movement, tracing back to the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for a nuclear freeze. Earlier this week, Iowa Federation of Labor President Mark Smith launched a candidate forum by asking: "What's the hurry to go to war?"
For Gephardt, who is counting on labor support, that is a pointed question.
Bill Carrick, a consultant to Gephardt and veteran of his 1988 campaign, said three focus groups with likely Iowa caucus voters showed "a much more nuanced" attitude toward Iraq than outright opposition to war.
"It is not like the final year of Vietnam," he said. "People want to get rid of Saddam, but they want us to work through the United Nations. They're very concerned by some of the Pentagon rhetoric, and they question whether Bush is being thoughtful and careful about the decisions." In discussing Iraq, Gephardt repeatedly said, "I urged the president to go to the United Nations and I made certain that the resolution included language committing the U.S. to that route." But he fully endorsed the administration's logic, saying that, like Bush, he sees inspections as futile unless Hussein is forced to change course.
"I don't believe Saddam Hussein will ever do what we want him to do without force unless he is convinced he has no way out," Gephardt said. "I always felt he is a survivor, so you've got to believe if the whole world is looking down the barrel of a gun at him, saying, 'You have to do this or else,' maybe you can get this done without force."
Like Kerry, Gephardt opposed the 1991 resolution authorizing military action to drive Hussein's forces from Kuwait -- a position the Missourian now says he regrets. But he has been much more resolute in support of the White House this time than has Kerry.
When a questioner said Kerry implied that Gephardt had compromised too easily with the White House, Gephardt replied that the president had made it clear he would not accept a "two-step" process that required him to come back to Congress for authorization of force.
"I was impressed with the administration argument" that a definitive resolution from Congress was needed before Bush could seek U.N. Security Council support, Gephardt said.
Asked where he might differ with Bush, Gephardt said he wished the renewed inspection regime had started sooner "so we would be in less of a time crunch." But repeatedly Gephardt reaffirmed his support of Bush's policy.
"I think the president is proceeding in the right way" in massing forces around Iraq even as the United Nations continues its debate, he said.
Without being specific on a timetable, he said, "There comes a time when you've got to use them [the land, air and sea forces] or bring them home and stand down. And I don't think that's a great idea."
A House Democrat close to Gephardt but opposed to starting a war with Iraq said today, "I think Dick has looked at this all along from a presidential perspective, trying to think what he would expect from a responsible opposition leader if he were in the White House."
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