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.

“I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the direction he has taken this nation. But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in the outdated extremes of our own,” Lieberman declared. “That path will not solve the challenges of our time, and could send us back to the political wilderness for years to come.”

Lieberman is, of course, wrong. Democrats were consigned to the political wilderness in 2002, when party leaders chose to follow his counsel and cosy up to the Bush Administration on issues such as war and peace, the USA Patriot Act and corporate welfare bailouts for the airline industry. While Republican turnout went up in 2002, Democratic turnout slackened. A quick analysis of the results led most Democrats — from presidential prospects to grassroots activists — to recognize that any further fuzzing of the margins between the parties in 2004 would be disastrous. So it comes as no surprise that the greatest applause line on the campaign trail has been Dean’s pledge to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”

While all the other candidates are trying to pick up on Dean’s call to arms — with varying degrees of success — Lieberman continues to preach a Republican-lite line that is so out of touch with political realities on the ground in America that it inspires laughter at Democratic gatherings. Lieberman thinks he is in a fight for the future of the Democratic party, but the truth is that he has already lost that fight. As Donna Brazile, the manager of the 2000 Gore-Lieberman campaign, explained to the Washington Post in May, “The bottom line is, he is defined as a conservative US senator.”

While Lieberman disputes that definition, his continued defense of the war with Iraq and his refusal to back off his support for Wall Street’s free-trade agenda has pegged him in the minds of many Democrats as a candidate who is way out of step with a party that questions the war and complains about the loss of more than two million manufacturing jobs in recent years.

For many Democrats who will play a pivotal role in the early caucuses and primaries, it is not Dean or Kerry or Kucinich who represent what Lieberman describes as “the discredited example of our party at its worst.” It is Lieberman, himself.

Harry Truman warned that, when given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat imitating a Republican, voters would not hesitate to vote for the real thing. And, with his support for the Bush Administration’s agenda on foreign policy and trade — fundamental issues not just for Democratic activists but for millions of disenchanted citizens who need to be drawn to the polls if the Democratic nominee is to prevail in November, 2004 — Lieberman has positioned himself as the pale imitation of Bush that grassroots Democrats fear will depress turnout.

Lieberman’s National Press Club speech signaled his intention to echo the conservative Democratic Leadership Council’s theme that nominating a Democrat who shares the values of the party faithful would be dangerous. Like the DLC, he is trying to paint more liberal candidates as 2004 versions of 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern. But the comparison that comes to mind when Lieberman bashes candidates who are popular with the party’s base voters is not to the 1972 race, but rather to the 1980 contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

That year, moderate Republicans were horrified by the prospect that the party cadres were preparing to nominate former California Governor Ronald Reagan for president. Reagan’s foes warned that if the conservative icon became the nominee, the November election results would be as disastrous as the 1964 campaign where standard-bearing conservative Barry Goldwater got trounced.

The pundits repeated the Goldwater-Reagan comparison constantly; even after Reagan’s campaign took off, Time magazine declared that, “His biggest problem may be that the very hard-line conservative positions that appeal to the enthusiasts who vote in G.O.P. primaries are exactly those that might not attract the much larger body of people who vote in November.” There was even talk that former President Gerald Ford might have to be drafted into the primary competition in order to stop Reagan. But the party faithful could not be dissuaded. They followed their principles and their hearts and went with Reagan. The November election results proved them right. Even if Americans did not agree with Reagan’s ideology, they preferred his confident style to the more nuanced and centrist offerings of Jimmy Carter and John Anderson.

Democrats who counsel compromise going into the 2004 contest are likely to find themselves disregarded in much the same way that Republican compromisers were in 1980. And rightly so. If the party chooses a candidate who is confident enough to aggressively challenge George W. Bush, Democrats might well find that steering a bold course is far more appealing to the great mass of American voters that the circumnavigations proposed by Joe Lieberman.