With Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman polling a scant 9% in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, the word on the street was not whether he would drop out, but when.
“He’s kind of the Bob Graham of January,” said independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg, referring to the Florida senator who ended his bid for president in October. “He’s a guy who deserves to be treated with some respect, but who’s hard to take all that seriously for the Democratic nomination.”
After the polls closed Tuesday night, Lieberman said he would soldier on, portraying his fifth-place showing as “a three-way split decision for third place” in a speech to supporters. He said his bid was not simply a campaign, but a struggle “for a Democratic Party that fights as hard to defend national security as it does to advance the cause of social justice and equal rights.”
While the final tally in New Hampshire may have done in Lieberman, it cemented Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s status as the front-runner for the nomination. He won the primary with 39% of the vote, and primed himself in an election-night speech to challenge President Bush on the issues of jobs and national security.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean finished second with 26%, while retired general Wesley Clark and North Carolina Senator John Edwards followed with 13% and 12%, respectively. None of the five top finishers seemed prepared to drop out before the next round of primaries on February 3.
Lieberman’s campaign scheduled a full slate of events for the candidate on Wednesday in Oklahoma, a state that votes next week. Strategists for several campaigns said that this year’s compressed primary schedule, far from winnowing the candidates early, was encouraging them to hang on because they already have spent substantial resources on contests down the road.
But Lieberman’s poll numbers have been discouraging for weeks in the states voting February 3, despite the millions he has spent to advertise in some of them. Consequently, there were whispers in the air even before the voting Tuesday that the end was near. A top Lieberman supporter told the Forward privately Tuesday morning that Lieberman would need to be in the “mid-teens” in order to have a chance to go on. “If not, the money will dry up,” the supporter said.
On Tuesday night after the polls closed, the talking heads on television were in near-obituary mode.
“Joe Lieberman is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known in politics,” said former Republican senator and presidential candidate Robert Dole, commenting on CNN. Added Dole, “I don’t see where he goes from here. It’s pretty clear he finished fifth.”
Even Lieberman’s greatest booster, his mother, Marcia, 89, seemed resigned when caught on the campaign trail last weekend by the Los Angeles Times.
“He’s such a good man,” the Times quoted her as saying. “I don’t know why he didn’t catch on.”
Asked to assess the campaign, analysts said that Lieberman’s bid failed on the merits and did not say anything substantial about Jews in American politics.
“I really don’t think, as the Joe Lieberman campaign unfolded, that [his being Jewish] was a terribly important part of the results, one way or the other,” said Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Donna Bojarsky.
Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said, “It’s a sign of the great maturity of our politics. There are a great many reasons why the Joe Lieberman campaign has not taken off — a lack of fundraising, his not being a compelling stump speaker, his being too conservative for a Democratic primary electorate — but you don’t hear even a whisper that it was because he is Jewish.”
Political observers said that from a professional point-of-view, the campaign was generally well-executed. Lieberman shook up his fundraising staff early on and that operation hollowed out quickly. But his press shop featured one of the few stars to emerge this cycle among the younger generation of Democratic mouthpieces: Lieberman’s hilarious “minister of information” Jano Cabrera.
The problem, as the professionals see it, was mostly with the candidate. Despite a knack for self-deprecating humor and a deft comic timing that enlivened debates, Lieberman lacked charisma and proved unable to fire up Democratic audiences. After Dean was anointed front runner by the press, Lieberman tried to position himself as the “anti-Dean” by critiquing Dean’s antiwar stance and overall campaign in harsh terms. When Dean said America was “no safer” after Saddam’s capture, Lieberman accused the candidate of having “climbed into his own spider hole of denial.”
But Lieberman’s negative tone backfired in New Hampshire, according to American Research Group pollster Dick Bennett, whose online poll suggested many voters disdained the senator’s tactics. While some Democratic observers called Lieberman’s moves feisty, others disliked his new persona — and some wondered why Lieberman had not displayed such verve in attacking Dick Cheney during the 2000 campaign.
One operative from a rival campaign that Lieberman did not attack said it was painful to watch Lieberman try to jab at his opponent, because it was so out of character for the senator, who is known among his colleagues for his integrity and thoughtfulness.
“The last thing you want is grandpa acting like the Marlon Brando character in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’” said the operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But if primary voters seemed less-than-enthusiastic about Lieberman’s campaign-trail persona, they positively rejected his centrist, hawkish politics.
“The more voters got to know Lieberman, it seemed, the less they supported him,” said Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz, adding, “I don’t think it was so much a rejection of him personally as it was his all-too-moderate politics.”
Lieberman’s staunch support of the Iraq war — he often reminded audiences that he had championed removing Saddam Hussein from power since 1998, before President Bush did — played badly in New Hampshire, where most Democrats were resolutely against the war.
At a New Hampshire Democratic Party function at the Sheraton hotel in Nashua on the night of January 24, Lieberman received more applause for his paean to the recently deceased Captain Kangaroo than when he said that he “never wavered for a moment on how important it was to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”
While Lieberman tried to leverage his Jewish connections into fundraising success, what was true for the Democratic base was just as true for the Jewish community, observers said.
Lieberman even lost the Jewish vote in New Hampshire, coming in third behind Kerry and Clark, according to CNN exit polling.
“Could Lieberman have raised more Jewish money or enjoyed greater Jewish support? Sure,” Rabinowitz said. “But he had to earn it. Just showing up Jewish isn’t good enough anymore. Our community has come a long way.”
Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis University, said that Lieberman’s candidacy “meant less to Jews this time” than did his historic turn in 2000 because he’s no longer the first Jew to run on a national ticket. Then, too, the particular moment Lieberman decided to run “seemed problematic” to some in the Jewish community, because of the rise of antisemitism and the targeting of Jews with respect to the Iraq war. “There was a reversion to the traditional political stance of ‘sha, shtil,’ we shouldn’t be too open,” Sarna said. “The very fact that there was such a spirited defense of the candidacy” to the Jewish community on the part of the campaign “demonstrated that was a consideration.”
Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at Queens College, said, “I don’t think his candidacy got high enough on the horizon for the Jewish and Orthodox issues to come into play…They would have become news if he was a viable candidate.”