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Dick Gephardt's impressive trade talk

Dick Gephardt strides into a family restaurant in Pocahontas, Iowa, and finds two species of mammals waiting for his campaign event, Iowans and reporters.

The 24 Iowans in this small room are unpretentious Midwesterners. There are farmers in dirty work coats. There are women in floral sweaters with gray hair, for they are as likely to color their hair as they are to sprout wings and fly to Mars. The Iowans are almost all elderly. (If you judged by the crowds at Iowa campaign events, you'd think the voting age was 70.)

The 23 reporters are from New York, Washington, London and such places, and are fully gadgeted up. We have phones, pagers, PDAs and various digital devices. We are 1,000 percent more likely than the Iowans to have college degrees, 10,000 percent more likely to think Jon Stewart is funny, and an infinite percent more likely to know what the words "Manolo Blahnik" refer to.

Dick Gephardt has brought the two groups together, but he is more one of them than one of us. He's from St. Louis, a city that has lost well over half of its population in his lifetime, and has spent his career as a party leader fighting for the Midwestern farmers and factory workers who have been on the losing side of economic history.

With reporters he is notoriously aloof and miserable, but you stick him in front of a bunch of retired union guys, and he radiates passion and sincerity.

His stump speech, which he hasn't altered since the start of the campaign, doesn't include anything on social issues or gun control. Instead, it's an unfurling of government programs: a drug program, a farm program, an energy program and so on. Like his hero Harry Truman, you can't get much more bread-and-butter than Dick Gephardt.

I judge these speeches by wheeling out the nod-o-meter. When a politician says something that directly touches the experiences and convictions of voters, you begin to see heads bobbing up and down in the audience.

Gephardt gets the heads bobbing when he tells the story of his son's nearly fatal bout with cancer and concludes, "People with health insurance get better treatment than people without."

But the issue that Gephardt is most passionate about, which gets the heads bobbing most vociferously, is trade. At the climax of his speech, Gephardt describes his visits to factory towns in Mexico and China, where he saw factory workers living in shipping boxes with raw sewage running through the streets.

He describes his meeting with Bill Clinton at which he told the president he would not support NAFTA unless there were international standards built in. He ridicules his Democratic opponents for their primary-season conversions on the issue. Sure, they are against free-trade pacts now, he points out, "but I was there when the jobs were on the line!"

Heads are bobbing all around.

The fact is, he's won. For three decades the Democrats have been split on trade, but you'd never know it from this campaign. Just as the Democratic field is chasing Howard Dean on Iraq, it is chasing Dick Gephardt on trade _ and repudiating Clinton. It is impossible to imagine the next Democratic presidential candidate pushing free-trade deals the way the last one did.

How has this shift happened? George Bush has played a role. Opposition to his policies has mobilized the liberals and quieted the Democratic centrists, pushing the party left on a number of issues. The unions have played a role. Under revitalized leadership, they've increased their influence on the party, if not the country.

But Gephardt has been crucial. If he had abandoned his position when the New Democrats were in vogue, or when Al Gore was crushing Ross Perot in debate, the protectionist side of the arguments would have collapsed.

Moreover, he's made his trade position politically palatable. He used to project himself as an economic nationalist _ as the protector of American jobs against those low-wage foreigners. Now he presents himself as a global liberal, insisting on international environmental and worker standards before trade deals are signed. The policy results are the same _ more trade barriers _ but now it sounds more humane.

Put aside the merits of Gephardt's case _ and personally I think free trade helps many more people than it hurts. Here is an unglamorous man who, after a lifetime's slogging, has brought his party around to his point of view.

That's sort of impressive.

+ David Brooks is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service

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