Stalled Campaign Takes Joe on the Road

By E.J. Kessler

Published October 17, 2003, issue of October 17, 2003.
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Ten months after announcing his candidacy for president, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is relaunching his sputtering campaign with a new slogan and a big idea.

He is embarking on a six-state tour with the theme of “Leading with Integrity” and promoting an overhaul of the tax code to shift the burden back to the rich and give tax relief to the middle class.

The tour, which took off Monday from Hartford, heading for New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Florida and Michigan, sports some spiffy gimmicks: a vehicle the campaign calls a “Winnebajoe” and a mountain range in its logo, symbolizing the “rock-solidness” of Lieberman’s leadership.

The tax overhaul plan represents a shift in tactics: Previously, Lieberman, like the other contenders bunched at the top of the Democratic field, had framed his economic proposals in terms of a partial rollback of the Bush tax cuts enacted during the last three years and had not sought what he is nowcalling “tax reform.”

“It’s an interesting gambit,” said Kevin Hassett, an economist at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. “It sets him up as someone who has a tax cut to offer to lots of voters.”

Arkansas-born Democratic strategist Debbie Willhite said that “Leading With Integrity” is a “good slogan, but I don’t know if he’ll be perceived as the only person who can own that” and that the tax package would resonate only if it got specific enough to tell the average family making $40,000 a year how much it would return to their paycheck.

Few analysts thought, however, that the moves would lift Lieberman out of the middle of the Democratic pack. While last month Lieberman’s campaign seemed energized by the candidate’s sharp sallies at rivals former Vermont governor Howard Dean and retired general Wesley Clark, other signs are not so encouraging.

Lieberman’s fundraising, after a surge last quarter to $5.1 million, fell to less than $4 million for the quarter that ended September 30. The quarter was tough going for all the Democratic contenders with the exception of the front-runner, Dean, who raised a record-breaking $14.7 million. In an echo of an earlier staff shake-up, Lieberman’s finance operation lost the services of senior fundraising adviser Shari Yost and is losing Mid-Atlantic fundraising director Stephanie Friedman Schneider to a job at Jewish Women International, the campaign confirms.

“We’re all sorry to see Stephanie go but wish her well in her new employ,” Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera said.

Strategists said, however, that the losses may indicate that Lieberman’s fundraising has hit a wall, because it is unusual for fundraisers to leave a campaign in midstream if it is going well.

Given such signs, skeptics think that the campaign’s relaunch will do little to affect the outcome of the centrist Lieberman’s bid.

Lieberman “has the same problem he had yesterday and the day before that and the month before that: In terms of the most defining issues of the day, Iraq as well as some others, he’s not where most Democrats are,” independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. “They’re angry, bitter and frustrated. The angriest he gets, he sounds like he’s kvetching.”

Others say, however, that it is impossible to count Lieberman out.

Pollster Maurice Carroll of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut said Lieberman has held his own in a crowded field.

“He’s about where you’d expect him to be in a big field, up with the leaders, none of whom dominate,” Carroll said, explaining that in national polling done by the university, Lieberman consistently has polled “in the teens.”

Carroll said that Dean and Clark had surged to the front of the Democratic pack, and if they maintained their momentum, one of those two would be the nominee. But Lieberman, he insisted, “has a shot.”

That is, if he can make it happen in the primary states. As the Forward reported last March, Lieberman’s campaign strategy is predicated on winning in some “middle-tier” states that are holding primaries on February 3: Arizona, Oklahoma and Delaware being the most prominent. While the campaign has been touting this “Tidal-Wave Tuesday,” reports from the states themselves have been mixed, with Lieberman steadily racking up endorsements from officials but not catching fire among rank-and-file voters. Now, with Clark in the race, Lieberman has a rival with appeal in moderate states with large military presences.

Willhite, the strategist, said she feels Clark “will hurt Lieberman the most, because lots of ground Lieberman is trying to claim Clark can claim. He’s a new face and voice.” She rates Lieberman’s chances to become the nominee “slim to none, and as they say where I come from, ‘slim left town.’”

Others are only a bit kinder. The contenders debated last week in Arizona, the most delegate-rich of the February 3 primary states, but Lieberman did not distinguish himself, according to one local observer. “Lieberman did fine in the debate,” wrote Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb. “But nothing happened that gave him a superior claim on Arizona voters. So, while he didn’t ‘lose’ the debate, it was a lost opportunity for him.”

Even at home Lieberman has cause to sigh: His approval rating in Connecticut has slipped from about 70% to the low 50s. “Some people are turned off by his running for president,” said Quinnipiac University pollster Douglas Schwartz, noting that sounding more like a partisan Democrat has cost Lieberman support among Republicans and independents.

Communications strategist Chris Lehane, a one-time adviser to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry who is in discussions to join Clark’s campaign, said that Lieberman’s problem is that he has failed to articulate a rationale for his presidential candidacy or to find a compelling message. Given the angry mood among Democratic primary voters, “he hasn’t tapped into that anger or found a voice that transcends that anger with a positive approach,” Lehane said, arguing that Dean had marshaled the anger while Clark was poised to contribute a constructive message with his theme of a “new patriotism.”

A campaign relaunch, complete with a big, new idea, Lehane said, “begs the question. You knew you were going to run for president for a while. Why wait to do it? It’s like a carton of milk: The expiration date runs quickly.”

“I do think it’s an enormous moment for Lieberman,” said Lehane, who was the Gore campaign staffer who broke the news to Lieberman that he had been chosen for the 2000 ticket. “When you get to the ‘New Coke’ phase, you’re going to find your voice, or it marks the beginning of the end.”






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