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2004 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS / THE DEMOCRATIC HOPEFULS

Joe Lieberman

Senator Says His Centrist Politics, Integrity and Faith Make Him the Party's Most Formidable Match for Bush

June 22, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — The rain starts to fall just as the gold SUV carrying Sen. Joe Lieberman rolls up to the curb at Ingersoll Avenue and 26th Street. But not to worry -- an aide is at the ready with an open umbrella. The supporters are dry and stationed inside and all is going according to plan this recent Sunday as the Connecticut Democrat arrives to open his presidential campaign headquarters here.

If only he weren't so many months late.

Lieberman's leading rivals for his party's nomination launched their Iowa storefronts long ago and have been hard at work in this state, where the all-important caucuses that officially start the race are just seven months away.

But Lieberman lost precious time in deference to Al Gore, the man who gave him national prominence by tabbing him as his running mate in 2000. Promising not to get into the '04 contest unless Gore got out, Lieberman kept his word. That effectively sidelined him until just before Christmas, when Gore announced he would not run.

"Maybe what I didn't really appreciate was the impact the time delay would have on my fund-raising," Lieberman said aboard a private jet between stops in Iowa. "But there was no way I could rationalize a run against him -- I would have felt hypocritical."

Some analysts expected Lieberman to burst onto the scene with a head of steam, tapping into still-simmering anger from an election many Democrats thought was stolen. Instead, he was perceived as late and lagging, an underperformer before he'd even begun.

His initial fund-raising was disappointing. The support that was expected to flow from the nation's Jewish community has yet to materialize -- some find his politics too conservative and are disinclined to endorse him purely on shared faith.

But what this 61-year-old, three-term senator has going for him is a long record of centrist politics, personal integrity and the residue of goodwill generated by his strong performance in the 2000 campaign. Even some GOP analysts say all that would make Lieberman a formidable match for President Bush -- if only he could win the Democratic nomination.

"It would be difficult to marginalize Joe Lieberman as a liberal," one Republican strategist conceded. "His support for the Iraq war means he won't be a whipping boy on national security. He would focus his campaign on the soft point for Bush -- the economy."

The question is whether this self-described "different kind of Democrat" can emerge from a nominating process that tends to be dominated by the party's more liberal voters, especially in its early stages.

"Logic would suggest that Democrats nominate Lieberman, but he doesn't evoke a lot of passion," said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington. "I don't sense the Democratic Party has hit rock bottom to the point where they say, 'I love Candidate X, but I'm going to get behind Joe Lieberman because he can beat Bush.' "

However, in the little town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, in a barn filled with antique tractors, Karen Parker says that electability is Lieberman's major asset. A 48-year-old elementary school media specialist, she drove more than an hour from Iowa City to spend her Sunday at a meet-the-candidates picnic.

"I like his message," Parker said, even though she opposed the Iraq war and is less than thrilled that Lieberman favors an experimental school voucher program. "Anyone perceived as too far to the left is not going to beat Bush. And the ultimate goal is to get Bush out of the White House."

If the U.S. electorate is holding roughly around the ideological 50-yard line, so is Lieberman.

Other Democratic candidates supported the war, but he was unswerving. He helped write homeland security legislation and has chastised Hollywood for peddling sex and violence. He condemns Bush's environmental policy and denounces his tax cuts as irresponsible. He is a consistent defender of civil liberties. His reputation for probity is unquestioned, bolstered by his famous rebuke of President Clinton during the Monica S. Lewinsky imbroglio.

He projects moderation and evenhandedness, the political equivalent of comfort food. People seem drawn to that, particularly in a place such as Iowa, where voters are willing to travel great distances for a backyard barbecue in Cedar Rapids or a coffee klatch in Des Moines to chat up a would-be president.

It is the sort of intimate setting where Lieberman shines. He comes across as fatherly, good-natured and droll, a devoutly religious man who seems centered at the core.

The early days of a presidential campaign are less a string of soaring speeches than one long meet-and-greet reception, and he relates as easily to total strangers as to old friends. (With an extended hand, he approaches a retired farmer who happens to be wearing a patch from a rival candidate. "That's a temporary situation!" Lieberman says with a jabbing finger, and the farmer cracks up.)

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