On June 24th the word went out from Kansas City. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers have found their candidate: Dick Gephardt. Meanwhile, Howard Dean rakes in millions on the internet.

The trendy insight du jour on all this is obvious and already a cliché: while e-candidate Dean zooms ahead on a beam of electrons, Dick Gephardt’s futile effort trudges along, slipping a rusty harness on yet another once mighty smokestack union. Dean is the glittery future, while Gephardt organizes America’s last few iron ship builders and blacksmiths. It’s quite fashionable, this argument. It’s also dead wrong.

I believe Gephardt might just become the Democratic nominee. Start with John Kerry’s latest process storyline, which is clever. “Dean is surging? Perfect, that means a Dean-Kerry race, just like we’ve always planned it.” It’s good spin, because it is based on the essential truth of the campaign; it’s boiling down to Dean vs. Stop Dean. But the big question remains: who will that Stop Dean candidate be?

Play out the early calendar. If the Iowa caucus results are Gephardt first, Dean second, then Kerry, the winners and losers will be clear. Gephardt wins by holding Iowa and Dean wins by beating Kerry in their first match up. The race will bounce into New Hampshire, with Kerry badly wounded. After all, he was the front-runner remember? While the New Hampshire state motto might be Live Free or Die, the Granite State’s political motto is Kill Somebody Big. If Kerry looks the loser coming out of Iowa, Dean may beat him good in New Hampshire and Kerry will most likely expire and Dean will really surge. The Stop Howard movement will panic and go all out to find a candidate, and Dick Gephardt would easily fill the bill.

Gephardt is no superstar, but he underrated nonetheless. Unlike either Dean or Kerry he’s actually run a serious presidential primary campaign before. He has ring savvy. He’s an easy fit to Democrat interest groups on the party’s base issues (his web site is a paint-by-numbers rendition of core Democrat issue orthodoxy). He has the honest affection of organized labor. His “un-electable in November” rap is baloney, particularly compared to two liberals from New England. The Democrats’ best shot to be competitive this fall is with a campaign focused on middle class economic pain; that’s Gephardt’s theme song. Along with Bob Graham, Gephardt is also the only Democratic from a swing state. He would bring electoral muscle to the ticket both in his home state of Missouri and across the Midwest. His healthcare plan is the only really big policy idea yet proposed in the Democrat race. He was with the President on the war.

Pretend for a minute you are one of the 250 Democratic House or Senate super delegates. Your “here we go again” Dean nightmares have begun and your thoughts are turning to the golden rule of every down ballot pol; to thine own political survival be true. Sure, Gephardt doesn’t throw lightning bolts, but compared to an apocalyptic Dean wipeout he looks just fine. He won’t cost us 20 Congressional seats … including mine.

Despite being put on the certain to fade list more than once in recent months by various beltway seers, Gephardt is still in the game. There has been no Iowa meltdown. His money is weaker than Kerry, Dean and Edwards, but he is raising enough to run a competitive campaign in the early states. He’s playing for real in South Carolina, Michigan and New Hampshire. Gephardt doesn’t have the money or horsepower to muscle the entire contest, but he is well set up to exploit the right situation.

Plenty could go wrong. Money could dry up. John Edwards should get on TV fast and get in the race before it totally passes him by. With summer TV driven fame, Edwards would crowd Gephardt in Iowa. The Kerry campaign could finally un-zip its Muskie suit, beat an actual message out of their Noah’s Ark of 21 consultants and High Advisors, come alive and whup Dean hard in New Hampshire. Conversely, Dean could also catch enough fire to snuff out Gephardt in Iowa.

Much could still happen. But as of today Gephardt easily makes my top three likely nominees list, and I’m not so sure he’s in third place. He’s slowly working the undercard, polishing his big idea, protecting his Iowa base and carefully preparing to make his shot. It’s a tortoise’s campaign, not a hare’s. It could prove to be very smart.