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Gephardt exploring presidential waters

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WASHINGTON — Departing House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri has decided to kick off his second run for the White House in 14 years by forming a presidential exploratory committee, the Associated Press has learned.

An invitation obtained by the AP says Gephardt will raise money for the exploratory committee at an event Jan. 22, asking for donations of at least $1,000 — or half the maximum for presidential candidates.

"Join us for a reception benefiting Richard Gephardt for President Exploratory Committee," the invitation said.

A source close to Gephardt, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, confirmed Thursday night that the Missouri Democrat has decided to form the exploratory committee — the traditional first step in a presidential bid — in the next few days.

Gephardt is stepping aside after eight years as the Democratic House leader and will bank on a strong national organization and close ties to traditional Democratic groups like organized labor to help him in his presidential bid.

Robert Kelley, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, said his friend has been the "most active champion of working people in Congress over the last decade."

In his last bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988, Gephardt started strong by winning in Iowa and finishing second in New Hampshire, but his campaign quickly faded.

Gephardt is joining a fast-growing Democratic field that includes Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who formally announced Thursday that he would run. The field is expected to grow to at least a half-dozen in the coming days.

The St. Louis native has been in politics since his days as a precinct captain and then an alderman in the city. He has represented that area of eastern Missouri in the House since 1976.

The sandy-haired, youthful-looking Gephardt ran for president in 1988 and drew early attention with his stands on the economy and trade. He did well early by winning in Iowa and finishing second in New Hampshire, but his campaign fizzled and he soon ran out of money.

He served as House Democratic leader from 1994 through 2002. Gephardt led efforts to bring the Democrats back to power in the House after the GOP took control in 1994, gaining ground but never accomplishing his goal.

During the last year, Gephardt visited dozens of cities on behalf of House candidates and renewed his widespread political network in case he decided on a presidential run.

He grew up the son of a milk truck driver and got an early appreciation for the labor unions from his Teamster dad.