‘Electable?’ Perhaps. But Nominatable? Is That Even a Word?

Posted May 30, 2003 at 12:32pm

Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) have a problem: each other. In a party dominated by organized labor, teachers, minorities and liberals, the two Senators are banking — and campaigning — on the idea that their relative moderation will lead them to the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. [IMGCAP(1)]

Each man’s prospects — which aren’t great to start with — are minimized by the presence of the other. So the first step for both is to try to survive until the other one drops out — and pray that he drops out soon enough for the survivor to benefit.

If that was the only problem for Lieberman and Graham, however, time and Democratic primary voters would take care of it. But both Senators face a number of other problems, from money to the caucus and primary calendar, which will make the Democratic nomination difficult to obtain.

Both had mediocre first-quarter fundraising, with Graham taking in just more than $1 million and Lieberman raising $3 million (but showing only $1.7 million in the bank at the end of March). Yes, the two hopefuls have reasonable explanations for their slow starts — in Lieberman’s case it was the late decisions of former Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Democratic colleague Sen. Chris Dodd not to run for president, and in Graham’s it was his heart surgery and his own late launch — but the delays are nevertheless problematic.

Whatever the reasons, the two badly trailed Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) both in first-quarter fundraising and in cash on hand at the end of March. Lieberman and Graham will have to do much better in the second quarter if they are to survive even until the end of the year.

The calendar likewise remains a problem for both men, since any Democratic hopeful who fails to break from the pack by the time the Feb. 3, 2004, results are all added up is essentially finished. Indeed, poor showings in the first two tests (outside the top four in Iowa and the top three in New Hampshire) almost certainly will mean the end of a campaign even before February rolls around.

Neither Lieberman nor Graham appears to be among the best organized in Iowa, and both men probably are relegated to competing for a weak fourth place finish in the state’s caucuses.

That would seem to make New Hampshire make-or-break for the two “electable” Democrats, hardly an ideal situation given Kerry’s and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s geographic advantages. (Lieberman’s Connecticut home makes him technically a New Englander. But to many New Hampshire Democrats, the Nutmeg State is just another borough of New York City.)

Of course, both Lieberman and Graham hope to do well among the Granite State’s Independents who vote in the primary, but that constituency may not be as cohesive as the “moderates” in the race hope.

Lieberman and Graham have sought to make much of their alleged ability to beat President Bush, and it’s clear that taking back the White House is a high (and perhaps the only attainable) priority for Democrats of all stripes. Lieberman’s contention that he neutralizes Bush’s advantage on defense and the “values” issue is effective, and Graham’s popularity in Florida is undeniable. But will that be enough to sway Democratic primary votes and caucus attendees this cycle?

The two Senators are fighting a very different war than Bill Clinton waged in 1992, when he won the Democratic nomination in part because liberal groups concluded that, after 12 years of Reagan-Bush, his Southern base and style gave him the best chance of winning, and his views proved liberal enough to deserve their backing.

The current Democratic field is much stronger than the 1992 field (with quirky Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown joined by liberal Tom Harkin and African-American Doug Wilder), and the effectiveness of the “electability” argument is much less clear this time.

Dean, after all, is arguing that the party needs to nominate someone who will draw a sharp contrast with Bush, and both Kerry and Gephardt are widely seen as having the poise and toughness to take on the president. And Edwards’ Carolina roots can help him make the “electability” argument in his own way while still appealing to the liberal base.

Fairly or unfairly, neither Lieberman nor Graham is widely seen as particularly tough or charismatic, and neither is now regarded by most Democrats as far and away more “electable” than others in the field. Because of that, their argument lacks the punch that it needs to overcome their other shortcomings and liabilities.

So the two Democratic Senators who insist that they would be the strongest Democratic nominees against Bush need some help to advance. They need others ahead of them to implode, and they need to get enough media attention to take advantage of any openings.

Lieberman begins with far more assets and advantages than Graham, but both men have difficult roads to travel, especially as long as they are both seeking their party’s top prize.


Rothenberg Political Report