Joe: What Went Wrong?

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s visions of the presidency collided with an unpredictable New Hampshire electorate on Tuesday. Lieberman did better than some polls predicted, but probably not enough to salvage a candidacy that was out of synch with the changing political perspectives of the party’s core activists.

He may have been the right man running in the wrong year.

His inspired performance as the 2000 vice-presidential candidate won him widespread respect and affection. That made him a frontrunner this year, but changing times and issues — and some strategic blunders — dissipated that momentum.

On Tuesday, Lieberman said he will continue the race into next week’s big round of primaries, but even admirers concede his candidacy is on life support, with all of the momentum — and, soon, most of the political money — shifting to the New Hampshire winners.

The primary was a huge victory for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and another setback for former Vermont governor — and former front-runner — Howard Dean. Its impact is less clear on two other candidates: retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who were locked in a close battle for third place.

So what went wrong for Joe? The answers have a lot to do with the fluid views of the voting public, the shifting center of the Democratic party and with Lieberman’s own character.

Some of Lieberman’s problems stem from his sense of loyalty and personal integrity. Political scientists make much of the fact that the senator delayed plunging into the Democratic primary race because of his pledge not to oppose his 2000 running mate, former Vice President Al Gore.

Gore couldn’t make up his mind for months, denying Lieberman the early start he needed to amass an insurmountable lead in fundraising and support that would scare off the competition — the classic strategy for frontrunners. Then, Gore rewarded that loyalty by endorsing Dean and not even giving Lieberman a heads-up before making the announcement.

A bigger problem was simply lousy timing.

Lieberman, a beacon of Democratic centrism, was too conservative for a party that is shifting to the left and too mild for party loyalists consumed with anger over the Republican administration and Congress — and who want a candidate who reflects that anger.

To the liberal core — half of those who voted in Tuesday’s primary consider themselves liberal, according to exit polls — there wasn’t enough to differentiate Lieberman from the Republican incumbent in a year of exceptional polarization.

Those same polls show continuing anger about the Iraq war. Lieberman, the war’s key Democratic supporter, continues to pay a heavy political price for that support.

Lieberman’s association with Gore, too, may have hurt him. There is evidence Democrats are eager to move beyond the Clinton-Gore era. Lieberman, who became a familiar face on the 2000 campaign trail, is a living reminder of that turbulent era.

Political professionals also point to strategic miscalculations that may have damaged the campaign.

Although it was widely assumed Lieberman would run for the presidency in 2004, he did not do what successful candidates normally do — spend several years traveling the country, building a strong base of personal relationships, tapping into all the key Democratic power centers.

"Too much of the campaign took place in Washington," Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg said.

Lieberman’s deadly deference to Gore may have been part of that; so was his devotion to his Senate duties.

Lieberman, like Clark, decided to forsake the Iowa caucuses and focus instead on this week’s New Hampshire primary.

But Kerry and Edwards, by beating Dean in Iowa, came out of the caucuses with a full head of steam — which suddenly made Lieberman’s and Clark’s tactical decision look like a blunder.

When Iowa caucus participants started shifting away from Dean because they worried he couldn’t beat President Bush, they broke for Kerry, who mounted an all-out Iowa effort, not Lieberman, who didn’t.

Kerry’s image as the Democrat with the best chance of being Bush apparently carried over into New Hampshire.

There’s little evidence Lieberman’s Judaism was much of a factor, although his religiousity may have soured him with some Democratic voters. Open professions of faith are seen as essential these days in general elections — but they are not big selling points with liberals.

And Lieberman did not do all that well among New Hampshire’s 10,000 Jews. According to exit polls, he came in third with Jewish voters — behind Kerry and Clark.

In the end, Joe’s woes have been mostly a function of changing times and a changing party.

To his enormous credit, Lieberman didn’t try to remake himself; he staunchly defended the centrist Democratic principles that have defined his career in the Senate, even when it became clear they would be an impediment in his quest for the White House.

That may be what Lieberman is most remembered for when the 2004 primaries enter the history books.