Focusing on N.H.

October 22, 2003|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. - The volunteers for Joseph I. Lieberman are already burning the late-night oil at his campaign headquarters following the Connecticut senator's decision to skip the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and concentrate on the nation's first presidential primary here eight days later.

That decision, along with the separate strategy of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark likewise to kiss off the Iowa voting, elevates the New Hampshire event to prime early significance in the contest for the Democratic nomination while reducing Iowa to a less critical role.

The reasons for the Lieberman and Clark decisions are different but equally obvious. The Lieberman campaign was going nowhere in Iowa and needed a strong boost here. The late-starting Clark campaign decided that the caucuses required too much organization and that it could better use its resources, including the presence of its charismatic candidate, playing catch-up in a primary state.

Peter Greenberger, the young Lieberman campaign director for New Hampshire, greeted the news by accentuating the positive. He looked at the map of the state in his second-floor headquarters and noted where four new offices can be opened, bringing the total to 10 with a doubling of his staff.

Mr. Lieberman is running a weak fourth and showing only 6 percent in the latest University of New Hampshire poll. But Mr. Greenberger says his man's New England roots and an intensified presence in the state can make him competitive with the two rivals from neighboring states who now lead the same poll. Well ahead is former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean with 30 percent followed by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts with 17 percent and Mr. Clark with 10 percent.

That showing for Mr. Clark, despite his late start, underscored his decision to bypass Iowa and brought him here this week. His New Hampshire chairman, former state Democratic Chairman George Bruno, says Mr. Clark "has committed himself to an all-out campaign here" and also has stepped up his operation in the state.

The Clark campaign has snapped up both the state director of the defunct campaign of Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Steve Bouchard, and its offices here. Mr. Bruno, playing the expectations game, says, "I don't think Clark can win in New Hampshire because his competitors are three people from New England. If he comes in first among the non-New England candidates, he will do well."

Mr. Greenberger, too, plays a bit of the same game. He notes that Mr. Dean has been in New Hampshire at least twice as often as Mr. Lieberman and that Mr. Kerry has the benefit of having for years been seen regularly on Boston television in the populous southern end of this state, whereas "we don't get Hartford TV up here."

Both Mr. Greenberger and Mr. Bruno point to the fact that voters registering as independents in the state outnumber Democrats and Republicans and that as much as one-third of the expected primary voters remain undecided.

Mr. Lieberman's decision to bail out of Iowa should have little significance, but Mr. Clark's could be an important break there for Mr. Dean, whose support among Democrats against the Iraq war could have been eroded by the general, who says he opposed the invasion. Accordingly, it's not good news for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and is fighting to repeat there.

The upshot of it all is to cast the Iowa caucuses more than ever as a test of Mr. Gephardt's survivability in the race and to boost the New Hampshire primary to center stage. Mr. Kerry, campaigning at the University of New Hampshire the other day, declared: "I don't think candidates should pick and choose. I'm trying to run a national campaign. If you're asking to be made president of the United States, you should run in all states."

Kathy Sullivan, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman, acknowledges that while the reduced field in Iowa elevates her state's primary, only a week later a host of states from South Carolina to Arizona will be voting on the Democratic hopefuls. That's where Mr. Lieberman hopes to break through - if he makes it that far.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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