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Sen. Joe Lieberman

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Sen. Joe Lieberman
U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman
Credit: Joe Lieberman campaign



'Joe 2004' presidential campaign button
Lieberman 2004 button
Credit: From the collection of Ken Rudin, NPR News


Note: Sen. Joe Lieberman withdrew from the race Feb. 3, 2004.

May 27, 2003 -- NPR's Bob Edwards spoke with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as part of an ongoing Morning Edition series of interviews with each of the announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Below, NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin provides background on the Lieberman candidacy.


It was one of the most talked-about lines of the night. On Saturday, May 3, the nine Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination were holding their first debate, at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. It was late in the event, the part in which candidates would directly address one another. In this instance, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a strong opponent of the war against Iraq, suggested to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an equally strong proponent of the conflict, that Lieberman's position was wrong. How can Democrats win this election, Kucinich asked, "if we simply rubber-stamp this president's destabilizing foreign policy of preemption and nuclear first strike, without offering a serious alternative?"

There was no hesitation in Lieberman's response. "Dennis, I'd say, how can we win this election if we send a message of weakness on defense and security after September 11, 2001 to the American people? Protecting their security, giving them a sense of safety, making sure people in this country are not worried when their loved ones go out to the mall or take a train, go to a movie theater, that is the first goal of our government, and that means being strong on defense and homeland security."

In that little exchange, Joe Lieberman for all intents and purposes defined why he is running for president. The three-term senator and 2000 vice-presidential nominee has made it clear that issues such as homeland security and national defense are not the property of the Republican Party, and that you can be a Democrat and still campaign on them. Whether or not that is the correct path to the nomination is another thing entirely.

Of the nine Democrats running, three (besides Lieberman) voted to give President Bush the authority to wage war -- Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. But no one supported it with such fervor as Lieberman, who has been calling for Saddam Hussein's ouster since the 1991 Gulf War. That position has not been universally applauded, to say the least, by Democratic activists, who are less inclined the embrace a candidate they derisively label "Bush lite." And it's these activists, conventional wisdom says, who will decide the nominee in the caucuses and primaries next year.

Lieberman also differs from Democratic dogma in that he supports caps on punitive damages in lawsuits, which angers trial lawyers, a big and growing Democratic constituency. He has taken on another party favorite, Hollywood, over the issues of sex and violence. During the South Carolina debate, he criticized Rep. Dick Gephardt's health-care proposal, saying it reminded him of "big-spending Democratic ideas of the past" -- the kind of language one would expect to hear from the GOP. He backs the death penalty. He has spoken out against racial quotas and went off the reservation with kind words about school vouchers.

Lieberman's ideological problems are compounded by the fact that the first-quarter figures for 2003 show that he raised far less money than expected. His $3 million total was less than half of what Sens. Edwards or Kerry raised. He's taken in less money than Gephardt, and has less money on hand than Howard Dean. Lieberman's aides insist that was due to the fact that his fund-raising operation was in limbo for a long time as Al Gore wrestled with getting into the race, an occurrence that Lieberman had pledged would have kept him on the sidelines for 2004. He also had to wait on Sen. Chris Dodd's decision about seeking the White House, which tied up a lot of Connecticut money. Watch the second-quarter figures, the Lieberman folks say.

It was Gore's unexpected naming of Lieberman as his running mate three summers ago that propelled the Connecticut lawmaker into the spotlight -- the first Jew on a major-party national ticket -- and it enabled him to become a contender for 2004. Lieberman, in fact, leads the pack in some national polls. Such polls, which are pretty meaningless at this point, may reflect name recognition stemming from the last campaign; lingering bitterness among Democrats over the outcome of that election may have something to do with it as well. But there is no unanimity among Gore supporters that Lieberman should be the nominee for '04. Some feel that he was too willing to compromise during the ill-fated Florida recount struggle; others say he was too passive in his debate against Dick Cheney. And there is no shortage of Lieberman positions that differ from Gore's, positions Lieberman has acknowledged he suppressed while he was seeking the Veepship in 2000.

To win the Democratic nomination, one must win the Democratic primaries and caucuses. And the schedule does not look especially promising for Lieberman. His prospects are thought to be nearly non-existent in Iowa, which opens up the process on Jan. 19. His pro-war stance is tough to sell in a caucus state, in which the most committed activists are clearly on the left. Some of his advisers are urging him to sit out the Iowa caucuses -- mimicking a strategy devised by Republican John McCain in 2000 -- and focus instead on the New Hampshire primary eight days later. But Lieberman insists he will compete in the Hawkeye State. On paper, New Hampshire does offer Lieberman a better chance. With a lack of a primary on the GOP side, Lieberman may be able to successfully woo independents, duplicating McCain's feat of 2000 in which the Arizonan scored an upset victory. But New Hampshire is complicated by the fact that two Democrats -- Massachusetts' Kerry and Vermont's Howard Dean -- come from states that directly border New Hampshire. Lieberman is expending a lot of energy in Arizona and Oklahoma, which vote on Feb. 3. But can he lose in Iowa and New Hampshire and still win the nomination? Such a feat is not unprecedented; Bill Clinton did it in 1992. But Clinton had a reservoir of support in the South, states like Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, states he won big en route to the nomination. For Lieberman to be rewarded at the Democratic convention in Boston next summer, he's going to have to pile up victories in state after state, and at this point it's not clear where those states are.

But he got solid grades from political reporters for his performance in the South Carolina debate, the first time voters (the few of them who saw the debate) got to size up the candidates. He is clearly hoping to build on those reviews.

Joe Lieberman was first elected to public office in 1970, winning a seat in the Connecticut state Senate. He remained in the legislature for ten years until he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. In 1982 and again in '86, he was elected state attorney general. In 1988 he upset Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, and has won re-election twice with at least 63 percent of the vote. One of the reasons he was picked as the vice presidential nominee in 2000 was his distaste, which he expressed in public, for President Clinton's personal behavior in office. He called it "wrong and unacceptable and should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability." Selecting Lieberman enabled Gore to show a modicum of independence from the scandals, and it no doubt helped with swing voters. But Clinton loyalists were less than thrilled.

Lieberman's credentials going into the race include his authorship of the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security. As chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, he led the investigation into the Enron collapse. He is a strong critic of the Bush economic platform and of the president's "right-wing agenda."

Lieberman insists he's the party's best chance against President Bush in the general election. Getting that far is the hard part.


Related NPR Stories

more Feb. 3, 2004: Sen. Joseph Lieberman withdraws after poor showings in the first nine state primaries and caucuses.

more Dec. 9, 2003: Former Vice President Al Gore endorses Howard Dean, bypassing his own former running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

more Oct. 20, 2003: Lieberman and retired Gen. Wesley Clark decide not to participate in the Iowa caucuses.

more Aug. 13, 2003: All Things Considered presents a Lieberman stump speech excerpt.

more July 28, 2003: On Day to Day, Slate political columnist Will Saletan translates Lieberman's favorite buzzwords.

more May 22, 2003: Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida accuse the White House of failing to properly probe the Sept. 11 attacks.

more April 14, 2003: Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq poses challenges for him in Iowa.

more Jan. 27, 2003: A Tavis Smiley Show interview with Lieberman about his presidential bid

more Jan. 16, 2003: A Fresh Air interview with Lieberman and his wife Hadassah

more Sept. 29, 2000: An All Things Considered profile of Lieberman

more More Morning Edition interviews with the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates


Web Resources

  • Joe Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign Web site.

  • Lieberman's Senate Web site.





       
       
       
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