Who would go to a "Joe Lieberman New Hampshire Primary Party," as a media advisory mistakenly described it, in suburban Washington on February 3?

People on the Lieberman payroll, or so it would appear, especially considering that the event was conveniently located near the campaign's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. It's not clear where his other supporters in the area are.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, it's easy to lose sight of exactly how far Lieberman has fallen over the course of the primaries. It's been clear for several weeks, after all, John Kerry was likely to take the lion's share of the "mini-Tuesday" delegates. And for months Howard Dean had been the prohibitive to win the chance to face George W. Bush come November.

Yet after President Bush's inauguration, the only thing that seemed to be standing between Lieberman and the Democratic nomination was the possibility that Al Gore would run again. The choice of Lieberman as Gore's 2000 vice-presidential nominee had been widely hailed in the press as a brilliant move, in one stroke distancing Gore from the decadence of the Clinton White House.

Once Gore stepped aside, Lieberman entered the race at the top of the national polls with strong name recognition, a solid fund-raising base, and a New Englander's inside track in the important New Hampshire primary. Since then, though, it's been all downhill.

By the time the Tuesday's night's party got under way, most people knew Lieberman was headed for yet another disappointing performance. (Indeed, the Reuters correspondent sitting next to us had quite literally already written the campaign's obituary and was just waiting for an appropriate moment to file the story.) The campaign had staked its hopes on Delaware, a state that mixes liberal politics with egregious corporate giveaways. The advance man who tested the microphone with a feeble "Go, Joe, 2004" displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm. And one couldn't help but feel sorry for the staffers we saw transporting balloons in the elevator for a victory celebration they knew would never come.

So what happened? The easy answer, as Tom Stillitano of Alexandria said, is, "The people who come out and vote in the primaries are more liberal than the Democratic electorate," which doomed the relatively conservative Lieberman. That explanation was somewhat plausible during the high tide of Deanism. But it falls flat post-Iowa.

The saving grace of such a candidate in the era of "Anyone But Bush," should have been his tight grasp on the elusive quality of electability. But people just don't seem to like Lieberman. Remarkably for the self-described centrist candidate, the latest href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/polls/usatodaypolls.htm">Gallup Poll shows his favorable-unfavorable spread as being worse than any other candidate besides Dean. Indeed, the same poll shows him less popular than the Democratic Party he seems so eager to run away from.

Given the grim circumstances of the evening, the choice of the song "Livin' on a Prayer" seemed appropriate. "We've got each other, and that's a lot / It doesn't really matter if we make it or not," went the refrain.

Everyone knows, after all, that to win a primary you need to boost your appeal to the party base. Yet Lieberman never tried to ingratiate himself to the Democratic faithful. Tom Nides, who ran Lieberman's 2000 presidential bid, called this year's campaign "flawless." He said Lieberman was simply "a moderate Democrat at a time when people wanted a more liberal voice," casting the candidate's refusal to court the electorate as a point of principle. The fact is that Lieberman simply isn't nearly as right wing as many believe. His American Conservative Union href="http://acuratings.com/acu.cgi?ACT=1&USER_ID=2833&YEAR=2003">
ratings out of 20 and zero out of a hundred in 2002 and 2003, respectively, leave him to the left of Kerry (20 and 13) and John Edwards (30 and 13) by at least one measure of voting records.

For all Lieberman's overt religiosity and schoolmarmish scolding, his actual positions on the crucial issues dealing with church and state and sexual autonomy are well within the liberal mainstream.

Consider his relatively hawkish stance on the Iraq War, as Nides argued. But Democrats were willing to forgive the pro-war votes of Kerry and Edwards, placing those candidates above the anti-war Dean and Wesley Clark.

Lieberman had always been explicit about why he rejected the president's reasons for going to war. Instead, Lieberman supported it on the more liberal grounds that regime change would advance human rights. Meanwhile, the other pro-war Democrats are stuck in the awkward position of having supported a war to eliminate weapons systems that did not exist.

A compelling case could have been made for Lieberman as a candidate who grounds liberal principles in sincere religious faith and advocates a muscular campaign to spread those
principles abroad as well as at home. But it was never presented.

His strategy of portraying himself as farther to the right than he really is -- and refusing to use his position as chairman of the Senate Government Oversight Committee to pursue investigations into misdeeds of the Bush administration -- may have helped his case in the media. He secured glowing editorials from The Seattle Times,
The State, href="http://www.joe2004.com/site/News2?
page=NewsArticle&id=6924&news_iv_ctrl=1021">The Greenville
News
, The Arizona Republic, Oklahoma's href="http://www.joe2004.com/site/News2?
page=NewsArticle&id=6896&news_iv_ctrl=1021">Hugo Daily News
,
and The Manchester Union-Leader, among others.

To win elections, though, you need to connect with actual voters, not just editorial writers. Democrats overwhelmingly rejected a candidate who often seemed more interested in intraparty factionalism than in attacking the opposition.

Now it appears that the two candidates who would have divided the party -- Lieberman and Dean -- are basically out. As a result, a united Democratic coalition will face off against a president whose massive deficits and drifting foreign policy are provoking increasing complaints from the right.

"Tonight, I feel like a winner," Lieberman told his ballroom audience, even though he wasn't. But the country just might be.

Matthew Yglesias and Ayelish McGarvey are Prospect writing fellows.

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