October 20, 2003
2 Top Democrats Will Not Contest Iowa's Caucuses
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 — Two prominent Democratic presidential candidates, Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have decided to bypass Iowa's presidential caucuses, angering some party leaders there and signaling what could be a very different nomination battle next year.
Mr. Lieberman's advisers said on Sunday that they would pull out all but one of his 17 staff members in Iowa and send them to states considered more receptive to his appeal, like Arizona. General Clark's aides said he would maintain a minimal presence in the state, which has the nation's earliest presidential selection contest. Last week, the general hired the former Iowa coordinator for Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who quit the race two weeks ago, and dispatched her to other states.
General Clark's advisers said they concluded last week that his late-starting candidacy had left him unable to assemble the intricate organization needed to win the Iowa race, which puts a premium on drawing voters to some 2,000 precinct caucuses. Most of the state's experienced organizers have signed with other candidates.
"What we'll do is what I call the General MacArthur strategy," a senior Clark adviser said. "General MacArthur was very successful in World War II because he skipped over the Japanese strongholds, where they were more organized, and instead picked islands that were favorable or neutral terrain. Which means we would choose not to focus resources on Iowa and instead focus them on New Hampshire and on Feb. 3," when there are Democratic contests in seven states.
Mr. Lieberman's advisers said his moderate stances on issues that are big in Iowa now, including his strong support for the war in Iraq and support of treaties lowering trade barriers, were problematic in a contest that attracts many liberal and blue-collar voters. His decision marks something of a retreat by the man who was his party's vice-presidential candidate in 2000; Mr. Lieberman has spent 15 days campaigning in Iowa this year.
"I think it's pretty safe to say that there's recognition inside the campaign that Iowa is not now, and will never be, Lieberman country," one adviser said.
Another adviser said on Sunday, "There's no victory in being fourth in Iowa."
The candidates' decisions will hardly erase Iowa from the Democratic political map in 2004. With less than three months until the caucuses, the first real test of a candidate's strength in the voters' eyes, four other Democratic contenders are in an unusually frenzied competition.
Still, the absence of General Clark and Mr. Lieberman could plant an asterisk alongside the results of the caucuses on Jan. 19. Even Iowa Democratic leaders, eager to maximize their quadrennial exercise of influence, say it could diminish the state's role in choosing the a nominee.
That could prove to be a complication for Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, who are hoping for an unencumbered victory in Iowa as an anchor for their nomination strategies.
Mr. Lieberman and General Clark's decisions followed speculation in Iowa about whether they would seriously compete in the caucuses. Several Democrats took note of their absence from a debate sponsored by the AARP in Des Moines on Wednesday, and Mr. Lieberman skipped the state during a high-profile campaign tour last week.
The decisions drew a sharp reaction from state party leaders and from other Democratic candidates. Several predicted that that General Clark and Mr. Lieberman would come to regret their decisions, noting that no one who skipped the caucuses has ever won the Democratic nomination.
"That would be very unwise," said Gordon Fischer, the Democratic state chairman. "That strategy has not worked before: Al Gore tried it in 1988 and John McCain tried in 2000. It didn't work for either of them, and I predict it will not work again."
Thomas Henderson, the Democratic leader in Polk County, shook his head vigorously when asked if he thought General Clark and Mr. Lieberman were making a wise decision.
"No, no, no, no," Mr. Henderson said. "The day after Iowa will be huge news. And those guys will be out of the picture."
Mr. Gephardt said in an interview that he did not see how someone could win the nomination without competing in Iowa. "It's very hard to start bypassing states," Mr. Gephardt said. "We have a very competitive race going on as you know in Iowa."
Dr. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said: "I think it's a very dangerous strategy to skip the place. And if you guess wrong by not competing in Iowa, there will never be a way to put that back in the bottle. There really isn't any room to recover this year."
There is another risk for Mr. Lieberman and General Clark. Iowa is certain to be one of the most contested states in the general election, given Mr. Gore's 4,100-vote victory in 2000. Democrats said Mr. Clark and Mr. Lieberman could appear to be snubbing Iowa, a perception that President Bush's advisers might use to try to hold down Democratic turnout, should either of the truants be the party's nominee.
The effort by the Democrats who are competing in Iowa could hardly be more intense. Mr. Gephardt, Dr. Dean, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, have spent a total of 182 days in Iowa this year.
The major candidates have headquarters up and running in Des Moines well into the night, and the restaurants and bars along Grand Avenue are bustling with staff members arguing their candidates' cases. At the Polk County Democratic Party dinner in Des Moines on Friday night, as Dr. Dean was shouting in the background about his foreign policy views, John Norris, who is Mr. Kerry's state director, walked over to Jeani Murray, who is running Dr. Dean's campaign, to throw an elbow at his colleague.
"I take it your polls are showing he has some problems on foreign policy," he said with a grin. Ms. Murray smiled but kept her eyes on her candidate.
The contest has become a fight between the traditional organizational efforts that have historically triumphed in Iowa — the approach adopted by Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry — and the wave of sheer enthusiasm generated by supporters of Dr. Dean. After a tentative start, Mr. Edwards is also mounting a spirited campaign, angling for a surprise showing in this shrinking field.
Though polling in Iowa is notoriously unreliable, state party leaders said Mr. Gephardt and Dr. Dean were the top contenders, followed by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards.
Some Democrats held out the possibility that General Clark or Mr. Lieberman could be engaging in an elaborate feint, setting themselves up for a last-minute entrance and surprise showing in January.
But aides to the two men, even while acknowledging their decision was made largely out of necessity, said the caucuses would prove to be less influential this election year.
For one thing, they said, the large number of candidates still in the race means caucuses will be less decisive in winnowing the field. In addition, the Democratic calendar would appear to give candidates other ways to get onto the field, and Mr. Lieberman and General Clark are looking to Feb. 3 to make their mark. The scattered geography of that day's voting will put a premium on television advertising, not on the time-consuming barnstorming that is required in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Look, General Clark deeply respects and appreciates the role Iowa plays in the nominating process," said Matt Bennett, his communications director. "But we have to recognize that caucuses are organizational efforts and those other candidates have spent years — and, in at least one case, decades — working the caucusgoers."
Conversations with Iowa voters over the past week suggest the general might have had a hard time competing there. Several expressed admiration for him, but also skepticism about his political experience and ideological credentials.
"I do not want a general as president," said Dianna Weber, 66, a retired teacher in Mason City. "There, I just said it."
Mr. Gephardt's advisers said he could not survive a loss in Iowa, because he is from a neighboring state and because he won the caucuses in 1988, the first time he ran for president. Mr. Gephardt has followed a traditional path, campaigning intensely through rural areas while assembling a network of labor supporters to deliver his vote.
He has repeatedly attacked his opponents for supporting the kind of free trade treaties that unions blame for an exodus of jobs to other nations.
"They are really pushing labor unions, and labor unions are responding," said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic organizer here. "And it's easy to underestimate labor."
But Mr. Gephardt is vulnerable for his support of the Iraq war. Dr. Dean has ridden that issue to great success, bringing so many new Democrats into the process that his campaign is planning to set up caucus schools to educate them on the fast-paced negotiations and horse-trading expected on caucus night from the more experienced backers of Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Kerry.