Image: Lieberman
Presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman speaks at a house party last August in Indianola, Iowa.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/22/2003 4:32:26 AM ET 2003-10-22T08:32:26

Democratic presidential contenders Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman are betting that to get to Boston, site of next summer’s Democratic convention, it makes more sense to go by way of South Carolina, Arizona, and Oklahoma, rather than through Iowa. By-passing the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, Clark and Lieberman are gambling that the winner in that state will lack the momentum he’ll need to win the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27 and to clinch the nomination in the contests that follow in February.

If the battle for the nomination is a protracted one, the decisive contests may come not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in seven contests on Feb. 3 — Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina — and in Michigan and Washington state on the following Saturday, Feb. 7.

The risk in the Clark and Lieberman strategy is that the race could be over before they get a chance to really compete.

The contestants in Iowa will receive a torrent of news media publicity from mid-December right through caucus night on Jan. 19.

Unless they do or say something truly extraordinary during that five-week period, Lieberman and Clark may become news media non-persons, under a kind of self-imposed blackout by absenting themselves from Iowa.

A DEAN JUGGERNAUT?

If the current front-runner, Howard Dean, were to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, some veteran Democrats believe it will be hard for anyone to stop him from winning the nomination.

The most recent New Hampshire poll, a Franklin Pierce College survey of 600 likely primary voters released Tuesday, found that Dean has a 14 percentage point lead over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, with more than one-quarter of likely voters still undecided.

“Gov. Dean is opening up a significant lead over Senator Kerry and the pack lagging behind them,” said Rich Killion, director of the Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication at Franklin Pierce College.

In Iowa, polls show Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt locked in a statistical tie, with Kerry running close behind them.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Lieberman’s poll numbers are only in the single digits, while Clark’s standing ranges from five percent to 11 percent in recent surveys in those states.

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WHY IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE?

Small and atypical they may be, but Iowa and New Hampshire serve a vital function for Democratic activists and for the news media: after months and months of dry, disembodied polling data, the first two contests satisfy the pent up demand for real votes, cast by flesh-and-blood Democrats.

Four years ago, Al Gore proved in Iowa and in New Hampshire that he was better at getting out his voters than Bill Bradley was in motivating his.

In the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Bill Clinton recovered from his draft evasion and womanizing scandals to finish a respectable second, with 25 percent of the vote, to Paul Tsongas.

That was good enough to propel Clinton to victories in the Georgia and South Carolina primaries in early March and in eight of the 11 “Super Tuesday” contests.

SIGNIFICANCE OF FEB. 3

Explaining Lieberman’s bypass strategy, his campaign spokesman Jano Cabrera said Tuesday, “This year, Iowa and New Hampshire will continue to play an important role in determining who the Democratic nominee will be, but unlike in years past, because the primary map has been changed and the traditional determinative role of Iowa and New Hampshire is being played by the Feb. 3 states and those after Feb. 3.”

He added that Lieberman strategists “recognized very early on the importance of the Feb. 3 states” and that Lieberman has spent more time campaigning in Arizona, Oklahoma and Delaware than any of his rivals.

But a senior Kerry aide said that Clark’s and Lieberman’s decision to bypass Iowa “means that they are not going to run a national campaign. If the standard for Sen. Lieberman’s non-participation in a primary or caucus is his performance in Iowa, then is New Hampshire next?”

And in fact polls show that Lieberman isn’t doing significantly better in New Hampshire than he is in Iowa.

The Lieberman and Clark strategy seems to have a chance of working only if on the morning after the New Hampshire primary Democratic voters in other states find that Dean is cruising toward the nomination and regard him as unable to beat Bush — and if Gephardt and Kerry have been mortally wounded by losses in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Dissatisfied Democrats might then look for an alternative to Dean in either Lieberman, Clark or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has not pulled out of Iowa.

In this scenario, the 2004 primary season turns out to be akin to 1992. That year, even after Clinton won the New York primary on April 7, some party elders fretted about his electability, citing exit poll data showing that nearly half of all Democrats surveyed thought Clinton lacked the honesty and integrity to be president.

Likewise this year some party veterans have decided to back Clark in the belief that he can best compete with Bush on the issue of national defense and give Bush a hard fight in Southern and border states.

But put the calendar, the polls and imponderables aside for a moment and look at the financial data the contenders filed with the Federal Election Commission last week. Dean had $12.4 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, 60 percent more than his nearest rival, Kerry.

Dean looks almost certain to have the money he’ll need to hire more staffers, air more TV ads and hopscotch more of the country in his chartered plane than any of his rivals from now until February.

From the first quarter of 2003 to the second, Dean more than doubled his funds, then from the second quarter to the third he nearly doubled them again, raking in $14.8 million in the third quarter, all at a time when his rivals were straining to raise even $4 million in the third quarter.

Even Petri dish bacteria can’t keep up their exponential growth rate without the optimal environment. For Dean, that optimal environment has been intense use of his Web site to raise money and build grass root organization, and a highly educated, computer-savvy target audience who have a fiscally conservative, socially liberal mindset and a rage at Bush and the Iraq war.

EFFECT OF BYPASS

If despite the odds, a strategy of bypassing Iowa and minimizing expectations in New Hampshire works for Lieberman or Clark, it would have big implications for the party.

“Increasingly, moderate candidates now see both states as playgrounds for exotic liberals slanting the nominating process before it begins,” said a veteran New Hampshire Democratic activist who asked not to be identified by name. “The Democratic Party must come to grips with this situation: Its nominees are hurt by this process. Can there be any doubt the party would be stronger if you started elsewhere?”

This activist added, “My prediction is more and more candidates are going to bypass one or both. One or two things are going to happen. Either Dean wins big here [in New Hampshire], gets nominated, and is blown out (by losing to Bush), allowing moderates to say, ‘I told you so.’ Or, Dean wins here, but is tanked in other primaries and is not nominated, making New Hampshire seem like an anomaly a la Paul Tsongas (in 1992). Either way, we come out a loser.”

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