Lieberman banking on 3 state primaries
Joseph Straw , Register Washington Bureau 10/27/2003
Town Talk
Lieberman's campaign
WASHINGTON — After nine months campaigning for his party’s presidential nomination, Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman — nearly elected vice president three years ago — finds himself stuck in the middle of the nine-member Democratic pack, both in state polls and in fund raising.

He has seen his lead in national polls evaporate, and in a poll of New Hampshire primary voters released Sunday, Lieberman received support from just 5 percent of respondents.

Even worse, the Boston Globe/WBZ poll showed only 28 percent of likely voters reported having a favorable opinion of him, compared to 42 percent who regarded him unfavorably. Six weeks ago, those numbers were virtually reversed.

The latest poll had former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean leading with 37 percent, followed by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at 24 percent.

Last week, Lieberman’s campaign announced that it would not campaign at all in Iowa, with its super-hyped early caucus.

Things could be looking pretty dour in the Lieberman camp these days.

Not so. And some Democratic strategists say Lieberman and his camp are right to harbor some optimism.

The presidential primary process, unpredictable in any year, will be markedly different in 2004, with seven state primaries that were previously spread out through February falling Feb. 3, two weeks after the Iowa caucus, and one week after New Hampshire.

Many expect the buzz around January’s victor or victors to overwhelm other candidates entering February.

Lieberman, however, is staking his chances on the Feb. 3 primary states of Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina, banking on the support of their relatively conservative Democratic voters.

"This is a new primary calendar we’re facing, and it’s the most compressed primary calendar we’ve seen. So the primary battle will be fought over more states, and more quickly than in any previous year," said Adam Kovacevich, a spokesman for Lieberman’s campaign.

"A candidate like Joe Lieberman who has broad national appeal, and who can do well in states ranging from Delaware to Arizona, can come out of Feb. 3 with significant momentum," Kovacevich said.

Veteran Democratic strategist Jim Duffy said that Iowa and New Hampshire victories by current front-runner Dean could spell doom for the two contests’ early regional favorites, Kerry and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

"They’re finished if they get beat in their base," Duffy said.

That would create a new race between Lieberman, U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, Duffy said.

"Somebody’s going to end up being the anti-Dean," Duffy said. "It’s going to be either Joe or Edwards or Wesley Clark to bring the fight to him in the more moderate states."

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, called Duffy’s view "a reasonable scenario."

"It’s reasonable, although I believe any candidate that wins the first two is going to have so much momentum, it’s going to be tough to beat them," said Rothenberg, who argued that if Lieberman can’t pull off New Hampshire, he has to win another state or states.

"I don’t know if he can," Rothenberg said.

Further, come next spring and summer, Democratic leaders will want a candidate who’s not only electable, but true to the party’s liberal convictions, Rothenberg said.

"I think (his support for the Iraq) war alone disqualifies Lieberman on those grounds," Rothenberg said.

Unlike Rothenberg, Duffy lauded Lieberman’s decision to skip Iowa, with its left-of-center voters.

"To go there and get beat gratuitously didn’t make sense. Money’s tough to raise. Why go waste money?" Duffy said.

Through September, Lieberman had raised $11.7 million since entering the presidential race in late January, placing him fifth among the contenders. Dean leads the pack with $25.6 million.

Kiki McLean, who was Lieberman’s spokeswoman during his 2000 campaign for vice president and now works as a Democratic strategist, said Lieberman is holding true to his long-standing strategy of focusing on Arizona, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

"Clearly he’s doing what he needs to do," McLean said. "He’s said from the beginning that’s where he’d make his play."

"At a certain point you’ve got to chart your own path, and not worry about what the other guys are doing," McLean said.

That path, dubbed the "Leading with Integrity Tour" by his campaign, looks to be a long, tough one.

Lieberman’s 3 percent showing in an Oct. 21-23 Zogby poll is eclipsed by the survey’s 4.5 percent margin of error. Lieberman placed sixth; Dean led at 40 percent.

An American Research Group poll conducted late in September in South Carolina showed 42 percent of the state’s Democrats as undecided. But Edwards, who trailed Lieberman in the same poll a month prior, led the New Havener and Clark 16 percent to 7 percent.

A poll of Arizona voters conducted early this month showed Lieberman in third place at 11 percent behind Clark with 12 percent and Dean with 13 percent. That poll, however, had a substantial 7 percent margin of error.

The Lieberman campaign’s very slow, very steady approach may help in the long run, McLean said.

"There’s been a level of discipline and focus in his campaign. As a result you don’t see a lot of high ups and low downs," McLean said.

Democratic strategist Bob Weiner said Lieberman may be served well by consistency, if not victory.

"The question isn’t ‘who’s going to win New Hampshire?’ or ‘who’s going to win Iowa?’ or ‘who’s going to win South Carolina?’ It’s ‘who’s going to come in second?’ And that’s where Joe is strong," said Weiner, who said he’s grown reluctant to prognosticate.

"It’s possible that Dean’s reaching a crescendo. It’s possible that we don’t know squat. We’d all never heard of Bill Clinton. He won. We’d all never heard of Jimmy Carter. He won. That’s what we’ve learned," Weiner said.

"We’ve learned in past elections that we were wrong."

Joseph Straw can be reached at , or (202) 737-5654.

©New Haven Register 2003