JOE SCORES IN '04
December 17, 2002 -- THE man most advantaged by Al Gore's withdrawal from the 2004 presidential race is his former running mate - Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Lieberman, who had vowed not to run if Gore did, can now step into the race and will likely be the initial leader in the polls. The surveys before Gore withdrew had Lieberman leading the rest of the pack; the former vice president's departure can only add to this initial lead.
The Connecticut senator could have a big edge in the '04 contest. The independent vote, which was split between McCain and Bradley in the 2000 primaries, will now be concentrated in the Democratic primary (since there will be no GOP contest). This vote, notoriously moderate, is not likely to back a liberal like Sen. John Kerry, but will probably be much more supportive of a centrist like Lieberman.
Inside the tall, well-groomed Massachusetts senator is a small Mike Dukakis trying to be heard. Kerry also has problems with his wife and her money. Their often tempestuous relationship (and her references to the late Sen. John Heinz as "my husband") are going to make very good copy. That red spot on his chest is not blood - it's ketchup.
Joe Lieberman grows on you. He is probably the single best example of integrity in the Senate. When he stood up and criticized Clinton's behavior during the Lewinsky mess, everybody listened hard.
And the very fact that Lieberman kept his promise and did not run while Gore was considering his options speaks well of him. How many other politicians would feel morally obliged not to challenge the man who had chosen them to run for vice president?
Lieberman's base and Gore's are quite different; a Gore candidacy would do no more injury to Lieberman than to any other contender. But the Connecticut senator felt it would be unethical of him to have run if Gore ran. "Unethical": a word most politicians couldn't even pronounce.
Lieberman is too klutzy to seem phony. He comes across as a mensch - a real person rather than a media-groomed, airbrushed, charismatic superstar.
He seems like a man of conscience because he is one. He is willing to take unpopular positions and he often does. The public may be looking for a man they can trust - and they'll like what the see in Lieberman.
Neither Sen. Tom Daschle nor Rep. Dick Gephardt will last long once the primaries start. No legislative leader has ever been elected president in his own right. Dole tried in 1996, LBJ in 1960, Taft in 1952, and Gingrich flirted with the idea in 2000. The compromises and deals one has to make - and the constant public partisanship - do not wear well on the voters. Both Democratic leaders have very high negatives in most polls.
This race will likely come down to three senators: Kerry, John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Lieberman. In that contest, Lieberman's integrity, stability and centrism could make all the difference.