Is Dick Gephardt now the main alternative to Howard Dean? With 50 days remaining till the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt is the only candidate holding his own with Howard Dean in a critical place, Gephardt’s Fortress Iowa.

The Gephardt victory scenario is as follows: win Iowa, roll into NH with momentum and beat an ailing Kerry for second place. Roll the table into Gephardt friendly SC, MI and MO and break Dean as Democratic regulars rally to Dick.

It’s not implausible. Gephardt is acceptable to every wing of the Democratic Party. He’s run for President before and it shows; he’s ring wise and focused. He’s dented Dean on Medicare and resisted being overrun in Iowa.

So, can Gephardt’s victory scenario actually come true?

At this point, most campaign handicappers would examine Gephardt’s SC chances and wonder what king making Rep. Jim Clyburn is going to do. Or ponder whether Gephardt’s industrial unions pack a bigger wallop in MI than Dean’s service unions.

But for me there is only one person I want to talk to: Gephardt’s cash flow accountant. I want to talk to The Pencil.

But that fight after Iowa will cost money, not only later but now. What Gephardt will need soon is paid media in the next wave of states to buttress his image. That means TV ads, which means real money. To date, Gephardt’s TV campaign has been limited to Iowa and New Hampshire.

That’s why I want to talk to The Pencil. Against Dean’s internet money machine and Kerry’s deep personal pockets, I’m dubious that Gephardt can find the money to fund the opportunity he may have. A big burden is time. This calendar happens so fast there will not be time to raise money nearly as fast as it will be burned up in the coming weeks. And TV now in MI and SC would do Gephardt a lot of good in building a deeper impression among voters he’ll soon need.

Dean is a powerful because he has the excitement of a momentum type outsider with the big money of a party boss backed frontrunner; he’s sort of like the illegitimate child of Fritz Mondale and Jimmy Carter. Dean’s money will build a TV defense in depth with ads in more states than just early IA and NH, a critical edge. And if Kerry can come back to life—and I think there is a chance he can with a better IA showing than is expected — he has the personal dollar power to run the table.

This is why Gephardt’s cash flow manager has the most critical job in the Gephardt campaign. They have to float the campaign forward by conserving cash and using the people the campaign owes money to as an informal bank. I will bet that the Gephardt operation is piling up as much vendor debt as possible; cash is used to pay for TV and postage and as little else as possible. It is a painful juggling act.

Earlier today I asked Gephardt’s crafty spokesperson Erik Smith what their cash on hand was. Of course, no campaign will tell you that as it is the most sacred secret number in headquarters, far more telling than any poll data. I wanted to see what Smith’s diplomatic response was. His answer: “Cash on hand at end of 3rd quarter was $5.9m.”

Taking those numbers, and subtracting the half million of vendor debt listed on the report and adding in a wild guess at the vendor debt they did not show at the end of Q3 to cook the report to impress the media, plus TV and mail costs for the war with Dean in Iowa and national travel plus cost of fund-raising and other expenses, my totally unsubstantiated guess is about $2.6 million in actual cash on hand and probably less than $1.25 million cash if all debts are paid today. The good news is with Christmas, the year-end brings matching funds; I’d guess around $1.8 million for Gephardt. Plus he’ll raise some more. It’s enough to fight, but less than the competition will have.

If Gephardt can win Iowa, he’s seriously in the hunt. But riding the winner’s wave on such thin resources will take cash flow genius and make winning Iowa feel easy.