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Gephardt: Count Me Out

Dick Gephardt would rather be House speaker than vice president.

On Tuesday, the House Minority Leader said of his prospects as Al Gore's running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket: "I've said I don't want to do that and I've said I hope they will find somebody to do that other than me."

"I have been very focused on one thing and that is winning back a (Democratic) majority in the House," explaind the Missouri congressman.

If Democrats win as few as six or seven House seats this fall, they would reclaim control of the House from the Republicans, and Gephardt would become speaker.

As a result, he said, "I'm otherwise occupied. That's the only reason why I wouldn't have a different thought on this."

In recent days, Democratic sources have said that Gephardt was one of several potential running mates on Gore's list. Others were said to include Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Bob Graham of Florida, as well as George Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader from Maine.

When Gephardt was asked by reporters on Tuesday whether he'd make an unequivocal statement that he wouldn't accept a spot on the Gore ticket, he said, "I've been as clear as clear can be."

Word of Gephardt's emergence as a potential running mate had sparked the beginnings of a leadership struggle among House Democrats. The party's whip, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, made clear his belief that he would step into the leader's job if Gephardt moved on, but there was dissent among some members of the rank-and-file.

Democratic sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any interest Gephardt may have had in running on Gore's ticket was quickly tempered by the situation among House Democrat, and by the pledge he made last year to put his own presidential ambitions on hold to focus on winning a House majority.

Over the weekend, a Gephardt aide confirmed a report in The New York Times that the House Minority Leader had all but ruled himself out of contention to be Gore's running mate. Aides to Gore declined comment, citing the vice president's effort to keep the selection process as private as possible.

And in a perhaps paradoxical twist of fate, Gephardt's quest to become speaker could get a boost from an unlikely source - Ralph Nader, the consumer activist turned Green Party candidate for president.

On Sunday, Nader told CBS News' Face The Nation why his own third-party bid for the White House could deliver the now Republican-controlled House to Gephardt and the Democrats.

"If we get millions of votes, as I'm sure we're going to for this Green Party presidential candidacy, a lot of people not seeing Green Party candidates running for the House because there are less than 10 percent of them in this new emerging party are going to vote for the Democratic member or Democratic challenger. And that will help Dick Gephardt get control of the House of Representatives."

According o Nader, that sounds just fine to Gephardt.

"I met with Dick Gephardt a month ago. I didn't detect he was displeased with the kinds of votes we'll bring out, especially non-voters, young voters, people who have been disenchanted," said Nader.

Here's one more thought to consider. If Gore loses the presidential race and the Democrats retake only the House but not the Senate, a Speaker Gephardt would be the nation's top elected Democrat. Not a bad place for a former presidential hopeful to be for a 2004 White House bid of his own.

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