Anyone who has spent time on the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign trail is familiar with the phrase “Except Lieberman.” When grassroots Democrats gather to talk about the crowd of candidates for the party’s nomination, there is plenty of disagreement about the merits of the various contenders, but the activists invariably come around to saying, “Of course, I’d support anyone against Bush.” Then, as an afterthought, they add, “Except Lieberman.”
In reality, most Democrats who attach the “Except Lieberman” qualifier are so angry with Bush that they probably would vote for Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman if he won the party’s nod. But not all. And that reality should be a serious concern for leaders of a party that cannot afford to suffer slippage from its base in 2004.
While Lieberman likes to claim that his center-right politics make him the surest Democratic prospect for 2004, the reality is that he is the prominent Democratic contender who would have the hardest time uniting the party. Among the leading contenders, none inspires such antipathy as Lieberman. The latest Iowa Poll of likely participants in that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses found that, in the “least-liked candidate” category, only the Rev. Al Sharpton ranked higher than Lieberman.
While high name recognition from his 2000 vice-presidential bid gave the Connecticut senator a solid position in early polls of Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, Lieberman has lost support as Democrats have focused on the 2004 contest. The Iowa Poll, released Sunday, showed him running a weak fourth place behind the frontrunner, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. The latest Franklin Pierce College poll from New Hampshire has Lieberman falling to fourth place there as well, with only six percent support. In the Field Poll of likely voters in California’s March 2 primary, Lieberman dropped from first place in April to third place in July, falling behind Dean and Kerry.
Considering the souring sentiments of the party faithful with regard to his candidacy, there was a measure of pathos in Lieberman’s attempt on Monday to identify himself as the candidate “rooted in the tradition of the Democratic party at its best.” Speaking in Washington at the National Press Club, Lieberman declared himself to be in “a fight for the future of the Democratic party” with more progressive candidates who, if polls and anecdotal evidence from the campaign trail serves as any indication, are dramatically more popular with Democrats than Lieberman. Desperate to renew a candidacy battered by structural difficulties — including the recent resignation of his Iowa campaign chief — Lieberman sought to drag the other candidates down with thinly-veiled shots at Dean, Kerry, Gephardt, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich and other contenders who have occupied turf to the left of the shared ground from which Bush and Lieberman support military adventurism, corporate-sponsored free trade policies and restrictions on civil liberties.