Gephardt Seeks a Higher Office, but He Doesn't Know Which One: Options Include President and Speaker of the House

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS - Rep. Richard A. Gephardt must make a serious decision in the next seven weeks: Run for president, or hedge his bets on becoming House speaker in two years?

Mr. Gephardt awoke in his district here yesterday morning after a few hours of sleep, happy and amazed at the real choice confronting him. He'd believed Republicans were going to trounce Democrats in Tuesday's congressional elections.

"I was despondent in the last two weeks," Mr. Gephardt said in an interview. "I thought we were just going to get killed."

Instead, Democrats picked up five House seats, creating the narrowest margin between the two parties in that chamber since the 1930s and putting Democrats in position to take back the House.

That means Mr. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, stands his best chance ever of becoming speaker.

Before it was known just how close Democrats had come to wiping out the Republicans' 11-seat majority, Mr. Gephardt said Tuesday evening that he would make a decision by the end of the year on whether to run for president in 2000. But yesterday, after the results sunk in, he seemed more ambivalent.

"I haven't thought about this and I haven't thought it through in any way. I've got to look at all this and talk to my colleagues and figure this out," he said, looking down in his coffee.

He then looked up and said, "One thing I do know is we are poised to win the House back."

That is precisely why some people close to Mr. Gephardt believe he will not run for president, but will focus his attention full time on his party controlling the House. That goal is more important for Mr. Gephardt than risking another losing presidential bid, they say, especially when it isn't clear that Democrats can hold the White House in 2000.

"When you look at how important the decision of 2000 is for the future of the party, you have to concede that getting the House back is going to be the most important thing," said one Democratic House member.

And when there is "a real possibility of not getting the White House," the member said, "it would be horrific not to get the House back. …