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‘Mr. February’? Joe Makes Bid For Early Wins

Call him “Mr. February.”

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman’s presidential campaign appears to have developed a strategy for locking in early support in states that are moving up their presidential primaries next year. He’s making a strong bid for the “middle tier” states, including Arizona, Oklahoma, Delaware and Virginia, that are holding primaries in February.

The strategy is a byproduct of the jockeying that has emerged among states aiming to increase influence by holding their primaries closer to the January dates of the first two contests, the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses. The jockeying has the nine Democratic hopefuls scrambling to deal with a shifting political calendar.

Last week the Lieberman campaign announced endorsements from a roster of leading Oklahoma Democrats, including State Attorney General Drew Edmondson, State Treasurer Robert Butkin, State House Speaker Larry Adair, State Senate Majority Whip Sam Helton, State Rep. Dan Boren and U.S. Rep. Brad Carson.

This week the campaign is set to announce the endorsements of 22 or 23 elected officials and activists in Arizona, including 13 of the state’s 34 Democratic legislators and six county supervisors, among them leading legislators John Loredo and Richard Martinez, according to a supporter, Fred DuVall.

Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said it makes sense for the Lieberman campaign to concentrate on the middle-tier February states.

“The assumption is that [Massachusetts Senator John] Kerry is going to do well in [neighboring] New Hampshire,” Goldstein said. “Iowa is a hard state for Lieberman because of his votes on some farm issues. All he needs is a ‘ticket out’ of those states.” With those two important states out of his reach, Goldstein said, Lieberman “needs to find a place to win.”

South Carolina, another February primary state, is unlikely to provide that place because of the candidacy of “favorite nephew” North Carolina Senator John Edwards. But Oklahoma, with a primary slated for February 17, might be a winning state for Lieberman because he is “enjoying a post-Clinton-Gore glow with African-American voters and conservative Democrats,” both of which the state has in abundance, Goldstein said.

Other analysts stress the significance of the time element of the compressed primary schedule for Lieberman’s strategy.

Adam Scheingate, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the “front-loading” and “leapfrog game” that is taking place means that the primary season effectively could be over in six weeks. Candidates do not have the luxury of time or of betting that a strong showing in one or two early primaries, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, will build momentum and attract contributions to fund later contests. Any serious candidate has to prove that he has the money in the bank and the organization on the ground at the get-go.

“You could see [Lieberman’s campaign] strategy as an attempt to make him a serious national candidate that’s able to compete effectively in every state holding primaries in the first six to eight weeks,” Scheingate said.

The campaign, for its part, said as much but declined to elaborate.

“Senator Lieberman is very grateful for the strong political support he has earned in each of the early primary/caucus states,” Lieberman’s political director, Joseph Eyer, wrote in an e-mail message to the Forward. “He is a national candidate with broad appeal. He’s carrying a message about renewing the American Dream, and that message is resonating from New Hampshire to Oklahoma — from Florida to Washington. While we won’t know the precise primary/caucus schedule until later this spring, our campaign is laying down the necessary ground work in each of the early states.”

That said, the outline of the strategy emerges from Lieberman’s schedule.

Lieberman has made four trips to Arizona and one apiece to Oklahoma and Delaware during the last two years, according to the campaign. His wife Hadassah also recently did a campaign lap in Oklahoma. Lieberman, like many lawmakers, has made any number of trips to Virginia.

Moderate Delaware, scheduled to vote February 3, looks ripe for Lieberman because of a prime endorsement: Its junior senator and former governor, Thomas Carper, told the Delaware Grapevine last year that he will support Lieberman’s candidacy absent a presidential bid from the state’s senior senator, Joseph Biden.

The Lieberman campaign also is said to be eyeing an important endorsement for the February 10 primary in Virginia, home to many so-called Nascar Democrats. A Southern state with an avidly religious populace and a large military presence, it is seen as game ground for Lieberman, whose moderate politics and observant Judaism give him a leg up in areas known for traditional values, observers say.

Then there is Arizona, which is something of a wild card. Arizona holds promise because Clinton won the state in 1996 and the Gore-Lieberman ticket lost it only narrowly in 2000, despite not giving the state much attention, Goldstein said. While the general and primary electorates are different, Arizona’s moderate, upscale primary voters might prove fertile territory for the centrist candidate when voters hit the polls February 3.

“Arizona’s status as an early primary state is brand new,” said DuVall, a one-time congressional candidate. “We haven’t been discovered, with the notable exception of the Lieberman campaign.” Building political capital, Lieberman has stumped for local candidates. “To his credit, that was long before the gleam of an early primary was in the eye of the governor and state party,” DuVall said. Such moves have given Lieberman “a good head start” in the state.

That sentiment appears to be supported by outside observers.

Lieberman is “doing fine” in Arizona, according to Patrick Joseph Mitchell, a Washington lobbyist who represents many Arizona business interests. “He’s got a lot of support among people from the Democratic [gubernatorial] administrations, and among Clinton people. It’s a pretty impressive group of folks. I’d say he’s clearly got more at the upper tier of the [Democratic] activist ladder than does anybody else.”

“It’s still early,” Mitchell continued, explaining that there’s “some interest” out there for other candidates, and pointing out that several large Arizona organizations, including the food workers’ and fire fighters’ unions, have yet to tender their endorsements. “That said, Lieberman is off to a strong start.”

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