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Can't beat 'em? Skip 'em

National | POLITICS: Conceding first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses to frontrunner Howard Dean, two upper-tier Democrats-Clark and Lieberman-hope to break with history and generate late momentum

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

Who would want to spend January in cold, snowy Iowa? Not Wesley Clark and Joseph Lieberman, evidently. The two Democratic presidential contenders announced they would forgo the state's first-in-the-nation party caucuses on Jan. 19, saving their time and money for later contests they might have a chance of winning.

The two announcements, made separately over the weekend, could have far-reaching implications for the entire Democratic field. Despite their national standing, neither Gen. Clark nor Sen. Lieberman had made much of a dent in Iowa, where time-consuming precinct caucuses reward grassroots organization over mere name recognition.

With two prominent figures out of the way, Iowa now looks like a battle between the party's rising star, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and the boy next door, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. Eight days later, in the New Hampshire primary, Gov. Dean will be slugging it out with another regional heavyweight, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

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That leaves Mr. Lieberman, Gen. Clark, and the rest of the Democratic field hoping for a breakout performance on Feb. 3, when voters will go to the polls in seven states. Split decisions on that day would leave the Democrats without a clear frontrunner, extending the competitive primary season well into February and shortening the party's window for uniting behind a single standard-bearer.

For Gen. Clark, the decision to abandon Iowa was fairly straightforward. After jumping into the race only a month ago, the retired general simply didn't have time to organize in 1,997 individual precincts all across the state. Strategists both inside and outside his campaign said Gen. Clark would do better to focus on Feb. 3 primaries in South Carolina and Arizona, where his 34 years of military service might appeal to large numbers of retired veterans.

For Mr. Lieberman, on the other hand, bailing out of the first caucus will be widely viewed as a sign of trouble. Al Gore's former running mate, despite weeks of campaigning across Iowa, was polling at less than 5 percent, barely ahead of fringe candidates like the Rev. Al Sharpton and former senator Carol Moseley-Braun.

The Lieberman campaign, naturally, tried to offer the best possible spin on the situation: "The Joe Lieberman campaign announced today they are adding additional staff and opening new offices in New Hampshire and several February 3rd primary states," trumpeted a news release on the candidate's website. There was no mention that those "additional staff" were being pulled out of Iowa rather than being hired from scratch. In fact, there was no mention of Iowa at all.

Candidates may ignore Iowa in their press releases, but ignoring the first caucus altogether is fraught with political dangers. "I don't think the strategy of bypassing Iowa is a very wise one," state Democratic chairman Gordon Fischer told reporters. History appears to bear him out: Since 1972, no Democrat has won the nomination without a top-three finish in the Iowa caucuses.

The weight of history will be heavy on Mr. Lieberman and Gen. Clark, who now have to convince voters and donors alike that they have a viable plan for jump-starting their campaigns in later primaries. Still, the strategy is not without precedent: In 1992 a little-known Arkansas governor skipped Iowa (he finished third anyway), lost New Hampshire, and yet somehow managed to capture the White House.

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