Iowa caucus not the focus for Lieberman

By Shelbi Thomas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

Merrisa Brown / Iowa Presidential Politics.com
Liebermanics: Supporters greet Sen. Joe Lieberman at the grand opening of his Cedar Rapids campaign office on Sept. 21, 2003.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman is gambling on a strategy to win the Democratic presidential nomination that limits campaigning in Iowa and depends on one active in South Carolina and other states whose primaries fall two weeks after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Since his first trip to Iowa as presidential candidate in February, Lieberman has said he doesn't expect to win the Jan. 19 event. A SurveyUSA poll conducted in September suggests Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean are in a tight race for first place in the state (each with 23 percent) with John Kerry not far behind (at 17 percent), but with Lieberman trailing Edwards (11 percent) and Clark (8 percent) with a mere 5 percent of the vote.

Within the first six months of 2003, Lieberman has lagged behind most other candidates, making five visits in Iowa within 9 days, compared with Dean's 14 visits in 27 days.

Lieberman's Iowa spokesman Jon Kott said the Connecticut senator has not given up on Iowa, noting that in a recent Lee Enterprises poll, 36 percent of likely caucus-goers have yet to make up their minds. He said Lieberman's Iowa campaign staff doubled from the last month to 20 workers, with 15 additional staffers expected within the next few weeks.

A new field office opened in Cedar Rapids this month to join his Des Moines headquarters. Lieberman recently made stops in Cedar Rapids, LeMars, Storm Lake, and Holstein, though he has no additional Iowa stops scheduled at this time.

David Redlawsk, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said these efforts still don't put Lieberman on equal footing with other candidates who have done extensive campaigning in the state.

"He's well behind what the other candidates are doing," Redlawsk said. "The biggest risk is that the media will write you off as not being a contender. The advantage is that he won't have to play the expectations game."

"His campaign is playing the worst of both worlds, though, in saying they are not ignoring Iowa, but not doing much that's visible for the campaign," Redlawsk said.

Local campaigning is particularly important in a caucus state, where voters have to commit hours of their time to convincing others to support their candidate rather than simply casting a single ballot during a primary.

"These Iowa caucuses are a labor-intensive exercise," Lieberman said to supporters at the Sept. 21 opening of his Cedar Rapids campaign office. "You have to show respect and listen to people and be America's president, not just pick and choose who you will represent."

"How well I do depends on how well you do to convince the people in Iowa that I'm the person who will do that," Lieberman said.

The caucuses also act as the first litmus test for the presidential candidates, with the media paying special attention to how dedicated voters respond to the contenders in Iowa.

"The outcome of the Iowa caucus may not influence the final outcome of the race, but if a candidate fails to meet the media's expectation for them there, they might find it difficult to go past Iowa," Redlawsk said. "It cripples their campaign, or if they do well, it boosts it."

Redlawsk said Lieberman's strategy to limit campaigning in Iowa in favor of winning big in other states is similar to Sen. John McCain's strategy as a Republican presidential candidate in 2000. McCain focused his efforts on winning New Hampshire, while Lieberman's date of concentration is Feb. 3, when one caucus and five state primaries will be held.

"He's taking a risk that the media attention his opponents get in Iowa doesn't overshadow his efforts elsewhere," Redlawsk said.

If Lieberman's strategy succeeds and he not only sweeps the Feb. 3 caucus and primaries, but takes the party's presidential nomination, he will have a head start at winning 43 delegates toward the 270 electoral votes necessary to become president. Iowa and New Hampshire combined only have 11 electoral votes. Redlawsk said the Feb. 3 states are more likely to be receptive to Lieberman's views as a moderate Democrat.

"He will probably campaign as the party centrist and say that the Democrats can't beat the Republicans if they go too far left. He'll say he's where the public is," Redlawsk said. "The kinds of states he's after on Feb. 3 are not known for being liberal and may have an interest in his message that could resonate there."

Voters in more liberal areas such as Iowa City, however, should not expect Lieberman to come to their communities. Redlawsk said Lieberman is more likely to appeal to rural Iowa or places that hold somewhat more conservative views on issues like the war on Iraq.

Kott said Lieberman hopes to gain the support of the Jewish and African-American communities, noting his faith, his presence at Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech, and his student leadership in the 1960s to assist voter registration initiative for blacks in Mississippi.

At the opening of his Cedar Rapids campaign office, a supporter suggested he visit the city's new African-American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa. Lieberman told his northeast Iowa regional director to "make sure I get to the museum."

Issues of particular interest to Iowans, Kott said, include his health care plan, which would widen insurance coverage under a program modeled around one federal employees receive, his dedication to bringing jobs back to the nearly 3 million workers who lost them under the Bush administration, and his stance on the environment, including his support for ethanol. Kott also said that Lieberman will be contending with Gephardt for the votes of union members.

Though Lieberman's name recognition as the 2000 vice presidential candidate under Al Gore helped him in earlier poll ratings, Redlawsk said the run will not likely affect voters' decisions now.

"Voters are looking at the future, not the past. So by the time the other candidates have been to Iowa three times as much as he has, it will no longer be a factor," he said.

In a time when Democrats are struggling to unite under one candidate to win against President George W. Bush, however, Lieberman's association to the 2000 elections where Democrats won the popular vote may be alluring.

"I hope the 50 million who voted for Lieberman with Gore would remember that and consider that three years ago, they believed in what he stood for, and hopefully, that still holds true," Kott said. "He can beat Bush; he's done it already, and he is confident he can do it again."

E-mail Shelbi Thomas at shelbi-thomas@uiowa.edu.

This story was published in The Newton Daily News on September 27 and in The Sac Sun on September 30, 2003.

Copyright © 2003 by Iowa Presidential Politics.com. This site produced by the "Presidential Politics" class in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.