Iowa Not Quite a Field of Dreams for Lieberman

Posted September 16, 2003 at 6:26pm

After consulting with a key strategist to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) earlier this year about the prospect of skipping the Iowa caucuses altogether, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) now appears increasingly unlikely to compete seriously in the first contest of the 2004 presidential primaries.

During the past month, Lieberman has chosen to sit out a number of key events in the state — including last weekend’s vaunted steak fry — that were attended by all of the other top-tier presidential candidates. During the same period, he has watched himself slide from near the top of polling to the back of the pack.

Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Lieberman met with John Weaver, the driving force behind McCain’s decision to bypass Iowa in the 2000 GOP presidential primaries, to walk through the idea of the Connecticut Democrat taking the same path next year.

Weaver, who since the 2000 race has announced that he is a Democrat, said that Lieberman’s decision to compete half-heartedly in Iowa would affect his campaign negatively beyond the results in the Hawkeye State. “On caucus day, when you do poorly you get lambasted for doing poorly,” he noted.

Unlike McCain, Lieberman will not have the “benefit of having made a firm decision and carrying out a different plan to achieve the nomination,” Weaver said, calling Lieberman’s Iowa approach “neither fish nor fowl.”

McCain’s strategy paid off, as he handed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush a shocking defeat in New Hampshire.

A Lieberman strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that because of the expectations for the Senator in Iowa, there will be little backlash after the caucuses.

“At this point expectations for us are so low that if we beat [the Rev. Al] Sharpton we will be happy with the results,” the strategist said.

The Lieberman campaign has instead focused its energies on the Jan. 27, 2004, New Hampshire primary as well as the so-called “moderate” primaries on Feb. 3.

Although Lieberman is now in an unenviable position in Iowa, his decision to neither play heavily nor ignore the state totally was largely determined by outside political forces, according to a number of individuals interviewed for this story.

Because of his presence as the vice presidential nominee on the Al Gore ticket in 2000, Lieberman began the campaign as a “national” candidate, a perception that carried its own burden, according to Iowa strategist Jeff Link.

“In some ways that adds to the pressure to compete in all the states,” Link said. “McCain could pick and choose because he was an insurgent and had a luxury that Lieberman did not.”

Compounding this was the Connecticut Senator’s strong support for the war in Iraq and his uneasy relationship with organized labor, factors that made marshaling support in Iowa a difficult proposition.

“The challenge for Lieberman is that he has no natural constituency in the caucuses,” said one Democratic Senate aide with strong ties to the state. “The afterglow from 2000 is gone.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has risen from near obscurity earlier in the year to become a co-frontrunner in the state (along with Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt) due largely to his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war.

Dean has also dedicated significant time on the ground in Iowa, a state where retail politics is the name of the game.

Dean has visited Iowa 41 times, the most of any of the nine candidates, according to a count by the political tipsheet The Hotline. Lieberman has been to the state only 10 times, fewer than all the major contenders except Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), a late entrant into the field.

Lieberman will add two visits to that total this week when he travels to northwestern Iowa on Thursday and then to Cedar Rapids on Saturday to take part in the final “Hear it from the Heartland” forum organized by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Despite these stops, Lieberman has been absent from a number of candidate cattle-calls in recent weeks.

Among the events Lieberman has missed are an Iowa Federation of Labor conference and a health care forum sponsored by Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

Lieberman’s strict devotion to keeping the Sabbath (meaning he engages in no political activity between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday) has kept him from several other events (including the steak fry), and several Iowa Democrats grumbled that he has done little to even have supporters at these gatherings.

One attendee at the steak fry noted that Lieberman was “a nonpresence,” while the other leading campaigns had “a street mob of supporters.”

Link painted Iowa as a lost opportunity for Lieberman, noting that polling up until the summer months had placed him firmly among the top tier.

“Had [Lieberman] made an early effort to identify those poll respondents and then reached out, organized them and talked to them, he could have been in a position to finish in the top three,” Link said.

In a poll conducted in late January by Zogby International, Lieberman received 17 percent, trailing only Gephardt, who took 19 percent.

The most recent Zogby poll, which was in the field last week, showed Lieberman at 4 percent and in fifth place.

While acknowledging its struggles in Iowa, the Lieberman campaign believes that as the primary calendar progresses, Lieberman will gain strength.

“As you look at the electoral map with each contest that passes the states look better for Lieberman,” a campaign strategist said.

Lieberman just concluded a two-day, seven-city tour of New Hampshire dubbed “Operation: Liebermania” aimed at restarting his campaign in the Granite State.

He faces a tough road given the geographic connections that Kerry and Dean have there.

But, Lieberman’s campaign believes the primary electorate will be significantly more moderate than in the caucuses and will be sprinkled with independent voters, who are allowed to vote in New Hampshire.

The campaign terrain then moves to South Carolina, Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico on Feb. 3; Lieberman has visited South Carolina, Arizona and Oklahoma a combined 22 times, the most of any of the nine candidates.

“All of those states self-identify as moderate states and elect more moderate Members,” said a Lieberman source. “The trick is to match Lieberman’s growth with his natural appeal in those states.”