How Joe Lieberman went from favorite son to unfavorite casualty

Friday, February 6, 2004 | by

matthew e. berger



washington |  Four years ago, he was the toast of the Jewish world, the favorite son who became a symbol of opportunity for American Jews in the United States.

But when he went out on his own this time around, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) failed to catch on as a top-tier candidate.

What went wrong?

Was his religion a factor — especially for Jews? Are his politics out of sync with Democratic voters? Was it his style?

Lieberman had said he would likely leave the race if he did not win one of the seven states that went to the polls for Democratic primaries on Tuesday, Feb. 3, and he had placed especially high hopes on Delaware. In the end, however, Lieberman finished a distant second in the state, with 14 percent of the vote, behind Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who won 50 percent.

Kerry captured four other states in the primaries this week — Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) prevailed in his birth state, South Carolina, capturing 45 percent of the vote to Kerry’s 30 percent.

Exit polls from the Feb. 3 primaries show that Kerry won the Jewish vote in Arizona and Delaware. In Arizona, Kerry captured 43 percent of the Jewish vote, followed by Lieberman, who garnered 23 percent. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean received 14 percent and retired Gen. Wesley Clark got 12 percent. In Delaware, Kerry won 40 percent of the Jewish vote, followed by Lieberman with 29 percent, Clark with 11 percent and Edwards with 10 percent.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark won the Oklahoma primary by little more than 1,000 votes over Edwards.

When Lieberman announced his candidacy in January 2003, he had the best name recognition among the Democratic hopefuls, because of his national exposure as the vice presidential nominee on the 2000 ticket with Al Gore.

But even as he was leading in the polls then, political analysts did not consider him in the top tier of candidates.

“Name recognition that he earned from the national race four years ago never persuaded me he was a credible contender for the nomination,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

Some say Lieberman’s fall was political. Lieberman is a moderate on social, economic and political issues, someone who supported the Iraq war and was campaigning among a Democratic electorate angered by the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq and his domestic policies.

Others say it was strategic, suggesting that Lieberman had a sense of entitlement about the race, because of the election controversies of 2000, and therefore did not lay the groundwork for his candidacy the way his opponents did.

In the Jewish community, analysis of his demise sparks passion — and even anger. Some say he was let down by his own.

While no one expected Lieberman to receive the full support of American Jews, some Lieberman loyalists say they did not anticipate the extent to which his candidacy would be rejected by some in their community.

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network Foundation, and his wife, Blu, were circulating an op-ed this week, arguing that Jews were acting like anti-Semites, casting Lieberman aside because of his Jewishness.

A rise of global anti-Semitism brought old fears to the surface for many Jews, he argued, and Jews looked for a safer choice.

Others may have seen Lieberman as too conservative on many issues, such as the war in Iraq or his support for faith-based initiatives.

“Voters wanted somebody who could really stick it to Bush and is confrontational and aggressive,” Rothenberg said.

That wasn’t Lieberman.

Jewish political leaders say that despite his poor showing, Lieberman’s candidacy was historic. Only two other Jews have tried to seek the presidency — Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in 1996 and the late Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp in 1976 — but neither got as far as Lieberman.

“He has carried himself as a national candidate and handled masterfully the few times people brought up his religion,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “In doing that, even that small gesture, he has blazed a path for future candidates who might one day be president of the United States.”