WASHINGTON - Taking direct aim at Howard Dean, the emerging front-runner in the Democratic presidential contest, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman criticized the former Vermont governor yesterday as being out of the mainstream and warned that his candidacy could be "a ticket to nowhere" for the party.
Dean would "not offer the kind of leadership that America needs" in the post-9/11 world and could revive a negative image of Democrats as weak on national defense, the Connecticut senator said. If Dean wins the nomination, he could consign the party to "the political wilderness for a long time to come," Lieberman told a National Press Club audience.
Lieberman also said Democrats would lose if they nominate someone, like Dean or Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who has called for repeal of President Bush's tax cuts, including those aimed at the middle class.
The scalding remarks by the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee represented the latest reaction from the party establishment to Dean's surging campaign and suggested that the 2004 race is entering a new, more contentious phase. It also signaled a fresh effort by Lieberman to spur his candidacy, which has yet to make significant progress, despite the celebrity he gained as Al Gore's running mate.
Lieberman said that he respects Dean's "deeply held opposition to the war against Saddam, but I just plain disagree with it. And I think that it is time to begin to speak openly, directly and with respect for one another, and from that debate will come a strong Democratic candidate and the prospect that we can have stronger and different leadership in the White House."
In a significant boost for his candidacy, Dean graced the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines this week. That level of national attention is usually accorded a presidential candidate only after he has scored a major primary victory.
Dean still lags in national polls, but his candidacy has taken off in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the nomination race begins.
The latest statewide survey in Iowa showed Dean in a statistical tie with Gephardt of Missouri for first place. Among those considered most likely to vote in next January's caucuses there, Dean's lead grew to 10 percentage points, according to The Des Moines Register poll, published Sunday.
This summer, Dean became the first candidate to air television ads in Iowa, and he has spent more time campaigning there than his rivals. His campaign made a major advertising buy this week in New Hampshire, where he poses a serious threat to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's campaign.
Dean has gained increasing support by appealing to grassroots Democratic anger with Bush and his policies. Lieberman's criticism was not a matter of concern to the Dean operation, since "every time one of the other candidates attacks us, we do better," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager.
"The more attacks we get from the Washington establishment candidates the more it helps us make the case that [Dean is] the insurgent from outside Washington" who is taking on Bush, Trippi said.
Dean first came to voters' attention by opposing war with Iraq last fall, when most of the major Democratic contenders were casting votes in Congress in support of Bush's war resolution.
Lieberman, the most hawkish of the Democratic candidates, said it was wrong for the party and for the country for Democrats to "shrink from the use of force when our security or our values are at stake."
Portraying the nomination contest as nothing less than a "battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party," the senator predicted that the "old Democratic policies like higher taxes and weakness on defense" would be a recipe for defeat next year. Lieberman pollster Mark Penn, who also worked for Clinton, has been quoted as saying that if Dean is nominated, Democrats could suffer a 49-state wipeout next year.
Finding his footing
For months, Lieberman has had difficulty finding his footing as a presidential candidate. He has struggled to raise campaign funds and attract fresh support in early states, especially New Hampshire, where a New England candidate would be expected to do well.
He still shows strength in some national polls, because he is better known than other candidates, though Lieberman acknowledged that most voters around the country have yet to make up their minds.
In his speech, the senator attacked all of his opponents, though he mentioned none by name. He assailed "some Democrats" for supporting expensive new big-government spending programs, protectionist trade policies and a rollback of the Bush tax cuts, and for being either ambivalent or outright opposed to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
However, in response to a post-speech question, Lieberman described Dean as someone who "could lead the Democratic Party into the political wilderness for a long time to come. ... I want to take the Democratic Party to the Oval Office and show how well we can govern America in the years ahead."
Today, the Democratic contenders will appear at a Chicago forum sponsored by the AFL-CIO. The labor federation is expected to announce plans for a meeting in October, when its presidential endorsement would be up for grabs.
It takes the support of at least two-thirds of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members to gain an endorsement, which only rarely is given before the primaries begin. Gephardt, the most reliable union supporter in the race, is considered the only candidate with a chance of gaining labor's early backing.
However, some labor leaders have strong doubts about Gephardt's ability to defeat Bush. The latest poll results from Iowa, which show Dean more popular than Gephardt among members of union households, are likely to intensify the concerns about Gephardt's candidacy.