Beneath Gephardt radar, House Dems seek to sway Kerry
By Hans Nichols
A cabal of House Democrats is quietly lobbying Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to select Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his vice-presidential running mate.
The group is trying to fly beneath the radar of their former minority leader, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), and is making the case that Edwards would help down-ballot lawmakers in tight races and deliver the White House for Democrats.
Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.) gathered 22 signatures on a letter from a diverse group of known Edwards supporters in late April, advocating a “Dream Team Ticket.”
In the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Hill, the 22 write: “In urging you to place Sen. John Edwards on the ticket as Vice-President, we are confident he will bring the right combination of talent, energy, and voter appeal to help you win the presidency.”
The group, working independently and unbeknownst to Edwards, avoided soliciting support from known Gephardt loyalists for fear that they would then gin up their own letter.
Their stealth approach was intended to sidestep a pure numbers game for lawmaker signatures — avoiding an “arms race” that they worried they couldn’t win — and focus on the merits of Edwards over Gephardt for the No. 2 slot. Before dropping out of the presidential primary, Gephardt had amassed 34 House endorsements.
“The idea is not to start an arms race over numbers,” Wynn said. “We wanted to show Senator Kerry that there was strong and diverse support in the House for John Edwards.”
The signatories reflect a cross-section of the Democratic caucus, including lawmakers outside of Edwards’s Southern fold and several former House supporters of Gephardt’s presidential bid.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who signed the letter, said Gephardt would be able to arm-twist many of his colleagues to support him. But he said that support would be for the wrong reason — for the past rather than the future.
“With Gephardt, it’s sentimental,” said Conyers, “He was here so long. He worked so hard. He’s a nice guy.
“But this is not about how nice a guy is, how long you’ve been here, what he did for you by putting you on appropriations. That’s irrelevant. I want to win. That’s the bottom line. That’s why I want Edwards on the ticket.”
Gephardt’s remaining House loyalists noted that he has not actively lobbied Kerry.
None said they knew of the Wynn letter, nor were they aware of any similar effort on Gephardt’s behalf.
Rep. Tim Ryan, (D-Ohio) said he signed the Edwards letter because he saw how independent voters reacted to him. “When the race came to Ohio, Edwards came to my district and charmed everyone,” said Ryan, who initially supported former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
“It makes a lot of sense to have Edwards on the ticket for me,” said Rep. Chris John (D-La.), who is running for the Senate.
“I know Gephardt is still interested,” he said, adding that many, himself included, would be torn in choosing between Gephardt and Edwards.
Meanwhile, a former top congressional lieutenant of Gephardt’s said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been telling members on the floor that she believes Edwards will help House Democrats win seats in the South. The lawmaker added that he doubts Gephardt’s ability to help take back the House.
A Pelosi spokeswoman said she was not aware of any such conversations.
But the notion that a Kerry-Edwards ticket would make it easier for Democrats to win tight House races was widespread in the Democratic caucus.
Rep. Max Sandlin, a former Gephardt supporter who also signed the Edwards letter, told The Hill, “Pelosi has not said that to me, but that’s a common thought.”
However, lawmakers who avoided veepstakes lobbying, said support for Gephardt, Edwards, or even retired Gen. Wesley Clark, was largely regional.
“It depends on which part of the caucus you come from. If you’re from the South, you’re probably for Edwards,” said House Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
But Edwards’s supporters strongly denied that support for him was regionalism, and pointed to the Midwestern and Californian lawmakers on the letter as proof that Edward’s appeal was nation-wide.
Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), a close Gephardt ally — who had not heard about the Wynn letter — said that the politics of picking a vice president were more complicated this year.
He suggested that goals of the Kerry campaign and the House and Senate campaign committee might not dovetail.
Gephardt would almost certainly put the battleground state of Missouri in the Kerry column, Spratt argued. But having Edwards on the ticket might help some of the House and Senate candidates in the South without delivering a single state, Spratt said.
Jason Stevenson contributed to this report.