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Center, but not front: Lieberman's quandary

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2003



DURHAM, N.H.

Twenty hours after Joe Lieberman sustained one of the most stunning jolts of his political career - word that Al Gore would endorse rival Howard Dean - the Connecticut senator appears relaxed, determined, and his genial old self.

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"See, I told you we'd make some news for you," he says, smiling wryly as he puts his hand on a reporter's shoulder after a press conference at a local restaurant.

The former vice presidential candidate then walks to a waiting television camera and begins the mantra that he will repeat, with only slight variations, dozens of times during the next 24 hours when the Gore endorsement is raised. It is a nuanced and calculated reaction that encapsulates the moderate Democrat's experience, temperament, and political savvy.

It is clear that Lieberman has been hurt, politically and personally, by Gore's failure to reach him before the news was leaked. Lieberman, known for his civility, speaks without a trace of anger. But in what many see as a sign of his political acuity, he's also capitalized on the sympathy inspired by Gore's handling of the affair - though it's been clear since the two ran together that they disagree on many issues.

"I was surprised because I heard it from the media, and I was surprised because I hadn't heard from him," he says (though several reports indicated that Gore had, in fact, tried to reach Lieberman several times in advance of his endorsement - but never got through). "I was surprised," he continues, clearly comfortable in the glare of the klieg lights, "because he's endorsing someone whose positions on defense, on trade, on middle-class tax cuts, are so different from the positions that Al Gore has taken over the years, and dramatically different from Bill Clinton's positions throughout the 1990s."

Whether a fair assessment or not, Joseph Lieberman - son of immigrants, first in his family to go to college (Yale, at that), and first Jew to run for vice president - makes it sound true. In the past week, playing on momentum generated by his national exposure as "slighted former running mate," he's sharpened his attacks on Dean in an effort to pull away from the pack. Lieberman has called him "Dr. No," charged that Saddam Hussein would still be in power if Dean had his way, and lashed out at him as fiscally irresponsible (though Dean is known as a fiscal conservative who made balanced budgets a top priority as governor.)

Despite those attacks and a sense of momentum, Lieberman continues to languish in polls. The latest survey from New Hampshire places him fourth, with 7 percent of the vote, compared to Dean's first-place 46 percent. Nationally, Lieberman does slightly better, at 13 percent - but that's still less than half the support Dean has. But Lieberman, a skilled politician, says he remains undaunted: The fight is just another step in a long, familiar road.

He was elected to the state senate just three years after law school, and his long career of political triumphs, policy fights, and thoughtful compromises have won him respect and affection in both Washington and Connecticut.

But since a young, idealistic Joe Lieberman marched on Washington with Martin Luther King in 1963, he's become far more conservative than many Democrats, especially on issues of defense and foreign policy. And it's that, pundits say, that has hampered him in his presidential aspirations: This is an age when Democrats are angry, when many believe the election was stolen and the war in Iraq is immoral. And those voters are looking for a candidate who can give voice to that outrage, not one who has gone out of his way to support the American invasion, analysts say. Lieberman's second-tier showing has been indicative of that gulf of expectations - and indicative, too, of a campaign that foundered almost as soon as it began.

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