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Candidates Bet Against History in Skipping Iowa

Democratic presidential hopefuls Lieberman and Clark decide to focus on other key states -- a strategy that has rarely paid off in the past.

October 21, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

By skipping the first key vote of the 2004 presidential campaign -- the Iowa precinct caucuses -- Democratic hopefuls Joe Lieberman and Wesley K. Clark are pursuing a risky strategy that has often failed.

But this time will be different, their political advisors insist, because of the crowded nature of the race, the clump of states that cast ballots soon after the lead-off voting in Iowa and New Hampshire and the political celebrity that Clark and Lieberman enjoy.

"Clark is not mounting a traditional campaign," spokesman Matt Bennett said Monday, explaining to reporters the decision to ignore Iowa.

Jano Cabrera, a Lieberman strategist, put it this way: "There's a difference between the lay of the land in 2004 and the years before. It's no longer simply a two-state early primary layout. At a minimum, it's a nine-state early primary contest."

But others maintain that certain fundamentals never change, regardless of personalities or political calendars, and one of these factors is the import of the initial presidential contests.

"The way the nominating process has always worked is that voters begin to take signals from the events which precede their own," said Tad Devine, a strategist for three of the last four Democratic presidential nominees and a supporter of John F. Kerry in the current race.

"In a large, multi-candidate field, voters are looking for cues -- who is the front-runner and who is a viable alternative?" Devine went on. "If you're none of the above because you haven't participated, it's very hard for voters to get a signal that voting for you would be meaningful."

On Sunday, Clark and Lieberman said they would effectively pull out of Iowa, which opens the presidential voting on Jan. 19. Instead, they will continue to campaign in New Hampshire, which holds its primary eight days later, and concentrate particularly on the rapid-fire series of contests that follow on Feb. 3 and beyond. Among the most critical of these are battles in South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan.

The exit of Clark and Lieberman establishes a four-way race in Iowa among former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Of the four, Dean and Gephardt are generally regarded as the candidates to beat in the state, though Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer said Monday the caucus race remained "incredibly fluid."

Lieberman and Clark each had their own reasons for quitting the state. But the decision was a matter of necessity for both, as is usually the case when a candidate narrows his sights. For Clark, the retired Army general, the problem was time. For Sen. Lieberman of Connecticut, it was more a question of ideology and a want of resources.

Clark, making his first run for political office, entered the presidential race in September. He is competing against candidates who have spent more than a year -- or, in the case of Gephardt, more than a decade -- gathering support in Iowa.

The state is a particularly labor-intensive one because of the nature of the precinct caucuses, which require voters to venture out on a cold January night and argue the case for their candidate to friends and neighbors in a town hall setting.

"It would simply be extremely difficult, given the realities of the calendar we face, to put in place the kind of organization that's required to really compete in Iowa," Bennett said.

He compared Clark's campaign approach to the island-hopping strategy that Gen. Douglas MacArthur employed in the Pacific during World War II, skipping over places "where the other side has spent a lot of time digging in" and focusing on more promising targets. One of those is New Hampshire, where Clark plans to spend the next several days campaigning.

But that, in turn, raises questions about the appeal of Clark, who leaped into the race partly as a result of a draft movement that supposedly demonstrated a broad and deep yearning for his candidacy that transcended geographic and even partisan boundaries.

"He was supposed to come in with a big splash, like a huge boulder, creating ripples all around him," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist who is neutral in the primary fight. "Some of the other campaigns may ask why it hasn't happened everywhere."

Lieberman faces a different set of challenges. He, too, is a political celebrity of a fashion, having run as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000.

But his presidential campaign has failed to inspire great enthusiasm. More pertinent, his middling fund-raising has forced Lieberman to follow a MacArthur-like strategy as well, focusing somewhat on New Hampshire, but even more aggressively on states such as South Carolina, Arizona and others that are presumably receptive to his more conservative message.

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