A late surge in donations has preserved the viability of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, but political observers warn that his weakness in two early primary states still imperil his chances for the White House.
Mr. Lieberman, of Connecticut, was perceived by many as an early front-runner for the nomination because of his position as vice presidential nominee on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000.
Polls gauging the mood of Democratic voters nationwide have Mr. Lieberman at least five points ahead of his rivals. Yet despite his popularity, the Lieberman campaign took on an air of desperation as second-quarter fund raising ended on June 30.
While upstart former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean bragged of raising $7 million — much of it collected over the Internet — Mr. Lieberman urged his supporters to bring up his total because “the national press will be looking closely at those fund-raising reports.”
“There are only 12 hours left before the critical June 30 fund-raising deadline,” he wrote in an e-mailed solicitation. “Before 12 midnight [Central time], please visit my Web site and make a contribution to my campaign.”
Mr. Lieberman ended up raising $5 million in the second quarter, better than expected. He tied for third place with Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, behind Mr. Dean’s $7 million and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s $6 million.
“This keeps him in the game,” said Jennifer Duffy, political analyst for the Cook Political Report. “If he hadn’t met this random expectation [for fund raising], I think the campaign would have been in some very serious trouble.”
Judging from some early polls in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, however, Mr. Lieberman is already in some trouble.
In Iowa, the first nomination test on Jan. 19, Mr. Lieberman is polling fourth behind Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean. A June 25 poll by Harstad Research showed Mr. Dean and Mr. Kerry in a virtual dead heat with Mr. Gephardt, who once enjoyed a double-digit advantage.
In New Hampshire, Mr. Lieberman’s poll numbers have dipped from a high of 20 percent in March to the low teens today, eclipsed by the surging Dean campaign.
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Mr. Lieberman’s weak poll numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“My expectations haven’t changed. I never expected him to be at the top of the list of contenders,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “I had doubts that people would see him as presidential enough.”
Democrats who are energized enough to participate in primaries and caucuses are still angry about the Florida recount debacle and President Bush’s continued popularity, Mr. Rothenberg said. Mr. Lieberman’s more reserved manner just doesn’t excite the party faithful as much as the fiery rhetoric of Mr. Dean and the sharp language of Mr. Kerry.
“Lieberman has that cute little line that he knows how to win presidential elections because he’s already won one,” Mr. Rothenberg said.
“Everyone laughs and cheers, but Democrats want to pick someone who can stand up to President Bush, someone who taps that sense that the party will return to its roots, and I don’t think Joe Lieberman does that. He’s not that kind of person. He’s just too nice.”
Dante Scala, professor of political science at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, said even supporters of Mr. Lieberman in the state concede that, for now at least, he appears to be “everyone’s second choice.”
“John Kerry and Howard Dean have been sucking up a lot of the oxygen up here,” Mr. Scala said. “That’s left the other candidates out in the cold to some extent.”