By Mike Murphy
Two weeks ago, at the ABC Debate, Joe Lieberman finally got in the Presidential race. Will he go anywhere?
Lieberman won his media accolades by being forceful, well reasoned and comfortable. Lieberman's other advantage was the wallpaper of humdrum he was competing against. Kerry tried to grab the spotlight by tussling with Dean; but he only succeeded in elevating the churlish Dean. While Dean won a strategic victory from Kerry's mistake, his snarling and defensive performance portends a dim future. If he continues that routine in debates people actually watch, Dr. Dean will wind up stuffed and on display at alongside Pat Schroeder and Pierre DuPont in the Footnotes of Past Presidential Campaigns museum. Edwards showed his natural talents, but he's hamstrung by his gawky friskiness, still far more puppy than President. Gephardt plodded, but managed to look sincere about his healthcare plan. Kerry did the best at the non-important stuff. His convention speech was good and he did the sharpest bit at Rep. Clyburn's "Call Me Kingmaker" fish fry. (Boss Clyburn's recipe: pack a few hundred loyal fuglemen into the lower level of a concrete parking garage, crank up the reverberating music inside until the volume reaches Rev. Moon's preferred brain-washing level and then, having made zombies out of the crowd, unleash some unvarnished local howlers as a warm-up act. Wheel ol' Fritz up to rasp out a few words, then close the show with the out-of-towners, each doing their best three minutes on the topic of "what's wrong with Republicans". Standing there amongst the cacophony and pondering the image of the President's aircraft carrier versus the Democrat's parking garage, your Backseat correspondent decided that the GOP should lend our Democratic foes a few good advance men as a purely humanitarian gesture.)
Lieberman scored by finally articulating a clear argument for his campaign: I'm strong where Bush is strong, and even stronger where Bush is weak. The good news: Lieberman now has a crisp rationale for his candidacy, a useful trick the others should try. The bad news: Lieberman might be in the wrong primary with his centrist bromides. To break out, Lieberman must quickly prove his message and his campaign has traction. Here are five triples I think Lieberman has to hit soon to truly come alive:
1.) Show Big Second Quarter Money. Joe, Inc. blew the first quarter. Two strikes and you're out.
2.) Sell the press a process roadmap of how you win that makes actual sense. All this whispering about Joe craftily holding back only to pounce upon the field after N.H. like a mighty leopard in Arizona or Guam or wherever is a losing strategy. Go to Iowa or New Hampshire, kill other candidates, move ahead. Or die trying. It's that simple and it's that hard.
3.) Go to N.H. like it is the whole campaign, and do well or face the music. Lieberman is from New England. His shtick could appeal to the independents who carry a big stick in the primary. This ridiculously early campaign eats N.H. buzz front-runners. So work the timing right. Kerry is fading, Dean is wobbling, it's guaranteed: there will be a new surge candidate in New Hampshire after Labor Day 2003, when it starts to count. Be that guy. The Lieberman campaign on all levels should be 50% about winning N.H. from today on. 50% about everything else: money, issues, and the eight states that count post New Hampshire. Stop wasting resources on other places and things. In Presidential primary politics, your schedule is half your message.
4.) Come up with another wedge issue beyond Iraq to split the field with. A domestic issue; pick a popular fight with an interest group the others suck up that you will never get anyway.
5.) Invent a TV gimmick to create a platform to communicate with Lieberman is good at discussion format TV. Bottle that and sell it. A strategy is often a list of what a campaign is not going to do, because saying no is a lot harder than saying yes. Joe Inc. needs to pick the few vital things and excel at them to come alive. They did that well in the first big debate. Now we'll see if they can run the table.