DES MOINES, Iowa - Of all the "name" Democratic presidential candidates operating campaign headquarters here for the kickoff 2004 caucuses, the one who seems to have made the least effort in Iowa so far is Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
So it's not surprising that he is running only fifth in the latest Zogby International poll of Iowa Democrats, with a mere 4 percent support. Although Mr. Lieberman probably has the highest name recognition of all the candidates after being the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, he has not been as visible in the state as the competitors he trails in the poll.
Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, who has come close to living in Iowa this year, has been rewarded with 23 percent of the vote in that survey. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt from neighboring Missouri, a steady visitor, got 17 percent. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts (11 percent) and John Edwards of North Carolina (6 percent) have been camping out regularly in Iowa as well.
Gordon Fischer, the Democratic state chairman here, says Mr. Lieberman told him about seven months ago that he was going to make a strong effort in Iowa, but he hasn't done so yet. "His campaign seems to be saying they're seriously competing here," Mr. Fischer says, "but to compete you have to be here."
With the Iowa caucuses still four months off (on Jan. 19), Mr. Fischer says, "It's not too late for any candidate to take it up a notch, but retail politics is essential here." Indeed, Mr. Lieberman was in Iowa last week doing just that.
The senator had a slower start than others in Iowa in part because he awaited former Vice President Al Gore's decision not to run again. But with a new Iowa manager, state Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the campaign is beginning to show the manpower and energy that has marked the other leading campaign headquarters through most of the summer.
Still, Mr. McCarthy candidly says Mr. Lieberman is not going to win in Iowa and the objective is merely a decent showing. In terms of the ultimate goal of winning the nomination, he says, "Iowa is not a win state," noting that Republican George H. W. Bush and Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts both ran third here in 1988 and were nominated.
Mr. McCarthy also says he'd rather be in his man's position, with little expected of him in Iowa, than in the shoes of Mr. Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and has high expectations here. Conventional wisdom says if he fails to win Iowa again, he may not be able to survive the setback.
Mr. McCarthy says the same about the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27. That's where Mr. Kerry, from a neighboring state, it is also said, must win over the high-riding Mr. Dean to survive. All Mr. Lieberman needs there, Mr. McCarthy says, is to finish third to emerge as the alternative to Mr. Dean, if the Vermonter wins both of the earliest voting states.
The real target of the Lieberman campaign, he says, is the batch of Southern and Southwestern states that hold their contests Feb. 3 - Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina - plus Delaware, and then Virginia on Feb. 10. In all these, the Lieberman campaign figures his more moderate positions should play well.
"If we don't do well on Feb. 3," Mr. McCarthy says, "we're done."
While other candidates have begun running TV ads or soon will do so, Mr. Lieberman's Iowa manager says, "We're certainly not going to do that four months out, that's for sure." Jano Cabrera, Mr. Lieberman's national campaign spokesman, says that without the early resources of other candidates in Iowa, "we hope to be aggressive and do as well as we can."
Mr. Cabrera says the bunching up of primaries and caucuses earlier in 2004 means the Feb. 3 grouping is "going to play a more important role in who the eventual nominee will be," and the moderate contests on that date "seem to favor Lieberman."
The challenge for Mr. Lieberman appears to be to get away with modest showings in Iowa and New Hampshire in order to cash in on his Feb. 3 date with supposedly more moderate voters elsewhere. Considering his middle-of-the-road views, it seems a risky gamble that he may have to take.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.