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Lieberman runs hard as unexpected underdog

LACONIA, N.H. — LACONIA, N.H. - Standing in line at the Soda Shoppe just before the lunchtime rush, Tom Space is weighing whether he should bother to say hello to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the latest Democrat to handshake his way through this eatery in search of the party's presidential nomination.

Instead, he bundles up and heads out into the bone-chilling cold that has frozen nearby Lake Winnipesaukee, shielding his eyes against the blinding winter sun.

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"He's got a very nice, congenial persona, and I think he comes across as a very sincere politician, but I question his ability to carry through on his pledges," Space, 55, says of Lieberman. "I'm just not sure he's strong enough" to take on President Bush.

Such is life on the campaign trail these days for Lieberman, who, with two weeks left until New Hampshire holds the first presidential primary, is putting in long days and trudging to scores of events in hopes of convincing state voters that he is the candidate best positioned to defeat Bush.

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It's a message the senator is having some trouble selling to voters who see him lagging in national and statewide polls behind Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who is the clear front-runner in this primary, and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who is enjoying a surge here.

An American Research Group poll of New Hampshire voters taken Jan. 9-11 showed Lieberman essentially tied with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for third place, with 10 percent.

The same survey showed Dean far ahead, with 36 percent, and Clark at 19 percent.

A Concord Monitor poll conducted last week showed Dean, Clark and Kerry taking the top three spots and Lieberman tied with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for fourth.

To have a shot at his party's nomination, Lieberman must do better here.

Like Clark, the Connecticut senator has opted to skip the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, the first presidential contest, to campaign in New Hampshire. But with time running short before the primary, even Lieberman's state campaign director, Peter Greenberger, says he would need "a surprise" finish in New Hampshire to have a realistic chance of winning the Democratic nod.

"We need to do better than expected, and we're poised to do that," Greenberger said.

So Lieberman, 62, has thrown himself painstakingly into this frost-bitten state's horserace.

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He has rented a basement apartment in the heart of the working-class town of Manchester, poured money into TV and radio ads that tout his centrist credentials and experience getting things done in Washington, and deployed his wife, Hadassah, on a statewide tour.

Lieberman, who gained national recognition as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, when he came tantalizingly close to the vice presidency, did not expect to be stuck in the role of underdog at this point in the campaign.

Gore's surprise endorsement of Dean last month won Lieberman some vital attention as a shunned man trying gamely to make the best of his chances. Still, the senator has had trouble shaking the notion that his is a campaign facing long odds.

"This is a wide-open race," Lieberman said cheerfully after an appearance at a Concord law firm, his round face crinkling with a carefree smile.

"I'm going to give the voters of New Hampshire - and throughout the country - a choice. There's a better way. They don't have to choose between the extremes."

As primary day nears, Lieberman has been attracting slightly larger groups to his events. But he still draws only a fraction of the crowds that show up for Clark or have turned out for Dean.

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And he seems to induce far less excitement than the retired general or former governor can spark when they walk into a room.

Emphasis on experience

Some who are considering backing Lieberman say that's just how they like their presidential candidates: steady, seasoned hands, rather than flashy, cutting-edge ones. Supporters, especially those who describe themselves as independents, say they like Lieberman's moderate stances on such issues as tax cuts and health care and appreciate his friendly, good-humored style of campaigning.

Lieberman is "somebody our kids can feel comfortable around," said David Mirsky, a public defender who attended a "Cup of Joe" with the candidate at Roland's in Nashua last week.

Nodding at his two sons, Jonathan, 7 - his pudgy cheek still red from Lieberman's grandfatherly pinch - and Daniel, 4, Mirsky said, "We don't really want them around people who are angry."

Mirsky and his wife, Joanne Petito, came to Roland's for a staged meeting with Lieberman to tout his tax plan, which would roll back some of Bush's reductions but preserve tax cuts for the middle class.

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The senator's plan contrasts with those of Dean and Gephardt, who have called for the repeal of all the Bush tax cuts as unaffordable and unfairly tilted to the rich.

Families like his, Mirsky said, "can't really survive the [candidates] who want to take away your tax cuts."

Taxes and security

Lieberman's tax-cut plan goes beyond the one Clark unveiled last week. The retired general would allow tax cuts only for middle-class families whose children are 18 or under.

But lately, with Clark making strides in New Hampshire, Lieberman has had to fight to preserve his status as the centrist in the race who can most be trusted on national security.

Indeed, the Connecticut senator might be the most hawkish of all the Democrats vying for the nomination. He has resolutely stood by his decision, for example, to back the resolution authorizing Bush to invade Iraq.

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At the same time, it's hard to argue with the military credentials of Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO. And Clark's middle-class tax-cut plan - though more limited than Lieberman's - also appeals to voters who are seeking a leader who shares Bill Clinton's economic vision.

Recognizing the challenge, Lieberman is touting his long experience in politics, including 14 years in the Senate. "I didn't just get dropped into this campaign out of nowhere," he likes to tell audiences.

Lieberman has also added Clark to the list of Democratic rivals - led by Dean - whom he criticizes on a daily basis.

Many of the voters who turn out to see Lieberman say they are trying to decide between him and Clark.

"It goes down between a sitting senator like Joe, who has a track record and has done a lot of things, and a brilliant military mind like General Clark, who has handled major international crises," said Steve Wrenn of Portsmouth, a 44-year-old technology executive at a bank. "I have to make the decision between the two."

Dashing from diners to town halls to house parties - a half-dozen stops in the space of 14 hours on one recent typical day - Lieberman seems determined to stay in this race as long as it takes to convince voters that he is the candidate who can win the presidency.

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Cost of campaign

His aides see the potential for victories in states with more moderate voters that hold primaries in February - such as Oklahoma and Arizona - and even into March, such as New York and California.

But it is not clear that Lieberman, whose fund raising has lagged behind his opponents', can stay competitive in the race that long. If he can, some wavering voters give him a decent chance against Bush.

Waiting to shake hands with him at the Soda Shoppe in Laconia, Michele Gaier Rush, 43, says she likes Lieberman's moderate record and reputation for integrity. He's "got a good message out there, giving us a good choice."

But for Rush, a Republican who can't vote in this month's primary, the strongest support she can give Lieberman is this: "Of all the Democratic candidates, he's the only one I would vote for."


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