New Hampshire Not Warming Up to Lieberman

Times Staff Writer

It's called "Operation Liebermania II: A Joe-Vember to Remember," a monthlong push during which Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman pours time and money into New Hampshire, hundreds of volunteers press his case and at least one family member campaigns in the state for 17 days straight.

November, however, is looking a bit like September and the original "Operation Liebermania," another seemingly unsuccessful effort to reinvigorate his campaign here.

Despite massive efforts in the state, the Connecticut senator does not seem to be gaining ground. Two recent polls of likely Democratic primary voters not only showed Lieberman far behind the front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, but mired in single digits.

Some longtime Democratic strategists say Lieberman may still catch on as he spends more time in the state and the campaign messages of other contenders come under scrutiny.

Other observers believe his time may be running out. And they say his failure to spark strong support in New Hampshire, which holds its crucial primary Jan. 27, is emblematic of the overall problems plaguing his presidential bid.

His support of the war in Iraq, his measured style on the campaign trail and the sense that his time in the spotlight came and went as Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 presidential campaign have handicapped his candidacy, these observers agree.

"You seldom get a second chance at this level of politics," said Andrew Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "And a lot of Democrats were disappointed with how [the 2000] campaign was run."

One sign that Lieberman's campaign is foundering is his trouble raising money. As of Sept. 30, he ranked sixth in the Democratic field of nine, with $11.8 million in donations for the year. That was far behind Dean's pace-setting $25.4 million.

Perhaps more telling, insiders say, is that he's had a tough time earning donations from those his campaign figured would be first to pony up -- fellow Jews.

One longtime Lieberman ally, who asked not to be named, said that older potential Jewish contributors, in particular, have questioned whether Lieberman can "be a fair broker on Israel; can he be a fair broker on the Middle East?"

Added the friend: "It's unique to this community. I've never had a non-Jew bring it up."

The hesitancy among would-be Jewish contributors "is such a source of frustration among the Lieberman people that they have stopped guessing why," said another ally, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. But, this person added, "the Lieberman people are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that there is this boatload of Jewish money that is ready to be sprung on them if he is a finalist" in the nomination contest.

Lieberman supporters argue that many Democrats will come to see that he will prove the most effective candidate against President Bush.

"When the White House looks at this field, Lieberman is the one who is most able to confound their two-core strategy: one, turning it into a left versus right campaign, and second, a values versus no-values campaign," said Washington lawyer Richard Goodstein. "Lieberman is moderate enough that he parries the charge of being too liberal, and he ... gives absolutely no ground to Bush on values issues."

The 61-year-old Lieberman also has done better in national polls than in those in New Hampshire. In a recent Los Angeles Times Poll, for instance, he stood tied for second with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, backed by 11% of likely voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses. Dean led with 12%, while 37% said they didn't know yet whom they would back.

But to tap into his broader national appeal -- and sway the undecideds -- Lieberman presumably must make a strong showing in New Hampshire.

He has not put all of his primary eggs in the New Hampshire basket -- he hopes to run at least third here and then do well in several of the contests Feb. 3, including primaries in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona.

But having opted out of active campaigning for the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, his campaign -- and family -- have focused on New Hampshire in recent weeks. His wife, Hadassah, toured community centers and colleges; daughter Rebecca hit schools and opened new campaign offices; his 89-year-old mother, Marcia, went to numerous events in her wheelchair. All of them have also campaigned in other states.

There is little evidence that the effort has paid off.

"It's tough. We're out here day after day, in the cold, trying, but nothing seems to help," a young supporter who identified herself as Sandy said at recent rally. "We don't really know what else to do."

One of Lieberman's largest drawbacks in New Hampshire has been his support of the war in Iraq. Although he has criticized aspects of Bush's Iraq policy, he has remained the most hawkish of the nine Democratic candidates about the war. That has prevented him from tapping into the anti-Bush sentiment among many Democrats.

He also has struggled to stand out on other issues in the highly polarized atmosphere of primary politics, in which hard-core party activists tend to play a larger role than during the general election. He has been unwilling to make snap decisions that might be difficult to defend later.

At a recent forum before AARP members in the town of Bedford, Lieberman was the only one of six attending candidates not to bash a Republican-sponsored Medicare prescription drug plan. "I'm not going to give a knee-jerk, reflex reaction and say no way," he said.

He would study the massive document, Lieberman said, and then make a decision -- and likely fight for a more comprehensive bill.

"He's not the angry Democrat's candidate," said Bill Andresen, former chief of staff of Lieberman's Senate office. "He doesn't wear his anger over the [contested] 2000 election on his shirt sleeve, and I think that's hurt him."

But, Andresen added, "I think once the people in New Hampshire have a chance to see him and meet him one on one, as they like to do in New Hampshire, he'll do fine. And once he starts to break into double digits there, it'll start to build on itself. [But] you've got to see some momentum over the next four to six weeks."

Added Smith, the political scientist: "If he doesn't do well in [the state] ... I think it would be over for him. And he's going nowhere right now, nowhere in a hurry."

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