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Despite glum polls, Lieberman keeps faith

Joe Lieberman's new TV ad in New Hampshire notes that he warned of al-Qaida "long before George Bush knew who they were."

But in touting his national security credentials, the Connecticut senator hardly expected the kind of furious reaction he received from a women at a town meeting Saturday night.

"How did you know about them?" she shouted. "What kind of ties do you have to them!"

Even the confused anger of a voter suspecting the most hawkish Democratic presidential contender of terrorist ties failed to soften Lieberman's ever-amiable smile. He might have a talk with his ad producer, he mused.

These are unusual days for the man who came just 537 votes shy of being vice president.

Local and national news reports on New Hampshire's primary often neglect to mention Lieberman. Healthy crowds of 150 and more show up at some of his New Hampshire rallies, but they are nowhere near the size of many of his rivals. His stump lines lately have the ring of a candidate on his last gasp.

"We're going to do a lot better than the experts expect here in New Hampshire because, thank God, the people of New Hampshire have the last word," he said Sunday after greeting breakfast diners at Pappy's restaurant in Manchester.

Two days before the primary, the major candidates scurried through single digit temperatures to court undecided New Hampshire voters, often with Hollywood and political celebrities in tow. Actor Glenn Close joined North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen campaigned with former Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy joined front-runner and fellow Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's once-elusive wife, Judy, was at her husband's side.

With many voters still saying they haven't made up their minds and independent voters able to vote Tuesday, the state still offers the potential for surprises. Who finishes second and third _ most are watching Dean, Clark and Edwards _ appears especially uncertain. Kerry sought to downplay front-runner talk, but he was buoyed by a national Newsweek poll suggesting he would narrowly beat President Bush, 49 percent to 46 percent, if the election were held today.

Lieberman, meanwhile, is fighting to be seen as a viable contender.

In the constant and often conflicting array of daily polls being released as the nation's first primary approaches, Lieberman, 61, can find reason for optimism. At least a couple of them suggest he is effectively tied for third place with Edwards and Clark, Kerry and Dean are in first and second place respectively.

Lieberman on Sunday talked up his "Joe-mentum" fueled, he said, by a strong debate performance Thursday and several newspaper endorsements.

And the other polls pointing to him in fifth place?

"I only talk about the polls when they're good for me," quips the man who consistently earns more laughs on the campaign trail than any of his rivals.

It's a reflection of how much his campaign has struggled that Lieberman is left on the eve of the New Hampshire primary hoping to spin a third place showing into momentum and a badly needed infusion of campaign donations for the seven contests that follow a week after New Hampshire.

This for the centrist senator who by many accounts helped Al Gore nearly win Florida and the presidency in 2000, and who for much of last year led the crowded Democratic field in national polls.

"It's surprising that he hasn't done better when he was so popular as Gore's running mate," said Democrat Janna French of Meredith, who is torn between Kerry and Edwards. "For me, I think he's too conservative. And maybe too nice. Not that the other candidates aren't nice, but I'm not sure Joe Lieberman is tough enough."

Lieberman, an unwavering supporter of the war in Iraq, has always faced the hurdle of being the most conservative Democrat in a nominating process that tends to be dominated by more liberal party activists. He skipped the Iowa caucuses to concentrate on New Hampshire, but it's unclear whether the strategy paid off.

The longtime Lieberman strategy was to emerge out of New Hampshire as the candidate Democrats wary of Dean could unite behind. But it didn't count on Kerry and Edwards beating Dean in the Iowa caucuses, and now Lieberman is on the verge of being squeezed out.

Like the other Democrats, he touts his ability to beat President Bush, often referring to an Australian newspaper report that Bush told the Australian prime minister that Lieberman would be the toughest candidate. As a centrist and deeply religious Jew, Lieberman contends he can stand up to Bush both on values and issues.

"They can't run their normal games on me that they run on the Democrats," he said Sunday. "They can't say I'm weak on defense, because Lord knows I'm not. They can't say I'm a big taxer and spender."

Lieberman hopes his moderate appeal will win over independent voters who can vote in Tuesday's primary and could be a decisive force. "John McCain and I . . . " Lieberman often says in his speeches aimed at courting the independent voters who pushed the Arizona senator to victory in New Hampshire four years ago.

In Merrimack, businessman Roger Van Wert, calls Lieberman a "McCain Democrat" who speaks his mind and stands on principle. But Van Wert doubts Lieberman can win the nomination. Some people call the senator boring, he noted, and he wonders whether others are skeptical about a Jewish president.

Lieberman took up that issue in a TV ad he started airing in New Hampshire this week. It features the words of John F. Kennedy, who overcame fears about a Catholic candidate in 1960: "While this year it may be a Catholic, in other years it may someday be a Jew," Kennedy says.

Lieberman, dismissing questions about troubles with his campaign, on Sunday continued cheerfully insisting that he'll still be campaigning hard in the round of states that follows New Hampshire, including South Carolina, Missouri and Arizona.

"I put my confidence in the people of New Hampshire," he said.

_ Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.

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