ST. LOUIS -- Rep. Dick Gephardt, a 26-year veteran of Congress and the former House Democratic leader, announced his second candidacy for president Wednesday, pledging to repeal President Bush's tax cuts to finance "quality health coverage for everyone who works in America."
The eighth candidate in a growing Democratic field, Gephardt sought to distinguish himself from lesser-known rivals for the party's nomination. "I think experience matters," said the Missouri lawmaker who sought the presidency in 1988.
"I'm not the political flavor of the month. I'm not the flashiest candidate around," he said. "But the fight for working families is in my bones."
Gephardt's health care plan, which would give billions of dollars in tax credits to businesses that invest the money in employee insurance benefits, is the cornerstone of an ambitious policy agenda designed to win what he called "the contest of ideas."
It is his answer to critics who say other Democratic candidates have more momentum or charisma, aides said.
Addressing at least 500 friends, family and supporters at his former elementary school's gymnasium, Gephardt said, "Here in the home of my values, here at the heart of the American dream, I announce my candidacy for the president of the United States."
"I'm running for president because I'm tired of leadership that's left us isolated in the world, and stranded here at home," Gephardt said.
While saying he supports Bush's efforts to disarm Iraq, without the United Nations if necessary, Gephardt said the president's go-it-alone rhetoric has alienated allies. "We must lead the world instead of merely bullying it," he said.
Gephardt, 62, ran for president in 1988 but his candidacy fizzled for lack of money after he won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. He took over the unenviable job of minority leader after the 1994 elections that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
It was Gephardt who handed the gavel to Newt Gingrich, officially transferring power to the conservative Republican on what he later called one of the worst days of his life. He failed to return the Democrats to majority status in four closely fought elections between 1996 and 2002.
The sandy-haired, youthful-looking Gephardt has built a formidable network of party activists and fund-raisers, and he is the only Democratic candidate who has sought the presidency before. He unveiled several new initiatives Wednesday, a reflection of his vast policy experience.
Still, party leaders openly wonder whether Gephardt's time has past and whether he can unseat a popular Republican president.
"He's got to convince them that he's not old news, that he brings something different to this effort and that is the catalyst for him to win -- a new message that is applicable to the times," said New Hampshire Democratic State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro.
The Republican National Committee, in a broadside at the newest Democratic candidate, described Gephardt as an "inside-the-Beltway liberal who has been tried, tested and rejected."
Gephardt, the son of a milk truck driver who belonged to the Teamsters, returned home in an effort to soften his public image and argue that his roots shaped his political career.
He was introduced by his son, Matt, who said Missouri native Harry Truman won Americans over with a plainspoken Midwest decency. "That's my dad," the son said.
After high-fiving his way to the makeshift stage, Gephardt gave the crowd several thumbs-up before launching into his 40-minute address with his usual low-key delivery.
He called White House tax cuts "unaffordable, unsustainable and patently unfair," accused Bush of pursuing "the economics of debt and regret" and assailed administration policies on education, the environmental, the budget and homeland security.
"Never has so much been done, in so little time, to help so few," he said.
Gephardt was flying from here to Iowa, site of the first presidential balloting in 2004, and later New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Seven other Democrats already have formed presidential committees or say they intend to do so: former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
Moseley-Braun and Kucinich were expected to take the first step toward a formal campaign by filing papers to establish exploratory committees this week.
Several other Democrats are considering bids.
Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry and Lieberman have gained distance from the rest of the pack thus far, either by simple name recognition, frequent travel, fund raising or strong early efforts to organize in key states.
In his speech, Gephardt mentioned that former President Clinton erased federal debts inherited from Bush's father. He pledged to "put hardworking Americans first again," an echo of Clinton's 1992 "putting people first" campaign slogan.
He pledged to start with health care reform and pension protection.
"Without the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, we can finish the unfinished business of providing high-quality health coverage to everyone who works in America, " Gephardt said.
He outlined a plan to give employers tax credits that would cover "most of the cost" associated with providing health care coverage to their workers. With the new incentive, businesses would be expected to offer health care coverage to full-time workers, aides said.
The tax credit would replace the existing employer tax deduction, which is now about 35 percent of the cost of coverage. Gephardt hopes to eventually cover up to 65 percent of insurance costs under his plan, aides said.
They said the plan, which will be detailed in a separate speech later this year, could eventually cost as much as Bush's 10-year, $1.3 trillion tax cut plan.