Lieberman in center of pack already eyeing White House

Chairing high profile Enron probe could be crucial in senator's potential presidential bid.

When Sen. Joseph Lieberman got the call to be Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election, he reportedly joked that, seeing as he had no better offer, he would accept.

Now, however, observers are speculating that the Connecticut lawmaker may be eyeing an even higher office.

As top Democrats begin quietly jostling for their party's presidential nomination - staking out ground on policy issues, vying for seats on Sunday talk shows, and meeting with potential donors - Senator Lieberman has been more visible than most.

In recent weeks, the senator has visited US troops in Afghanistan, and given a hawkish foreign-policy speech on Iraq. He's also traveled to New Hampshire and Iowa, and spent Martin Luther King Day in Florida.

But it's his role chairing the high-profile Senate hearings on Enron that analysts say could prove most critical to a future White House run.

Not all the publicity so far has been positive. Lieberman has had to contend with revelations that he received campaign donations from Enron and its accounting firm Arthur Andersen; that his former chief of staff became a consultant for Enron; and that the senator introduced a bill in the 1990s that would have made it harder to tighten corporate accounting rules.

Still, polls show the public associates Republicans far more than Democrats with the scandal. As a result, analysts say if Lieberman can successfully align himself with the cause of reform, protecting workers and investors against corporate chicanery and greed, he could find himself well positioned for 2004.

"He's perfectly poised to make political hay against the Bush administration," says Scott McLean, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "I don't think he'll try to tar Bush with a scandal. ... But the political effect [of the hearings] will be to raise the profile of Enron in the headlines - and his name will always be attached to that."

Early contest

Although the presidential campaign doesn't generally take off until after the congressional midterm elections, under the Democrats' new compressed primary schedule - in which the nominee may be all but decided just one week after the New Hampshire primary - candidates must begin gathering support even earlier than usual. Consequently, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering among Democrats has already begun.

In recent weeks, possible rivals including House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle have all given big speeches. Another contender, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, traveled to Afghanistan with Lieberman.

But analysts note that Lieberman already has a built-in advantage over many other Democrats: strong national name recognition, thanks to his role in the 2000 election.

"He got great notoriety off of his vice-presidential candidacy," says David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant. "In a system where the ability to start with a strong base and raise national money is critical, that adds even more value."

The Enron hearings will likely only add to Lieberman's visibility. Analysts say the scandal could become a potent campaign issue for Democrats in general, by reinforcing the stereotype of Republicans as the party of big business.

For Lieberman in particular, investigating the Enron debacle could help shore up his populist credentials. This could be critical for a presidential run, since on many issues, the senator stands to the right of his party. He has lent support to President Bush's plan to fund faith-based groups that provide social services, and has often been seen as friendly toward business interests.

While Lieberman's relative conservatism might make a strong contender in the general election, he could face a tougher time in the primaries, where he would have to win over his party's base, analysts predict.

"Democrats might want someone with a more of a Democratic edge," says George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University in College Station.

But others note that Lieberman's standing among Democrats has risen in the wake of the 2000 election - and that in fact, it's among Republicans where he has lost ground in his home state. "But it's offset by the fact that Democrats like him more than ever," says Professor McLean.

And this support among the party's base may grow even stronger as the Enron hearings progress.

One complicating factor, however, is Lieberman's pledge not to run if Mr. Gore decides to try again. Aides say this promise still stands. While Gore has kept a low profile since the 2000 election, the former vice president last week announced the formation of a political action committee, and he gave a speech to Tennessee Democrats.

Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's director of communications, says the senator has not discussed future political plans with Gore - although he says the two stay in touch, mostly via e-mail.

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