CHARLESTON, S.C. No more Mr. Nice Guy for Joe Lieberman.
The mild-mannered Connecticut senator, his presidential campaign stalled in the Democratic Party's middling mass, is directing harsher salvos at President Bush and -- most notably -- his rivals.
He says Howard Dean probably can't get elected, accuses John Kerry of waffling on Iraq and calls Dick Gephardt's health care plan "big-government spending."
The most conservative of the field's nine candidates, Lieberman may finally be following the advice of frustrated advisers and even former President Clinton. Their counsel: Toughen your spine in a primary race dominated by liberal voters and angry partisans.
"I'm the only Democrat who can win in November of '04 because I can take on the president where he is supposed to be strong -- on defense, security and values -- and beat him where we know he's weak -- on his failed economic policies and on his divisive, right-wing agenda," Lieberman told 75 supporters this week at Hyman's Seafood restaurant.
Lieberman supported both the war in Iraq and the 1991 Persian Gulf War waged under Bush's father. He backs tax cuts, including some authored by the Republican president, supports experimental school vouchers and opposed some forms of affirmative action in the 1990s.
Many strategists say such a record is toxic in Democratic primaries, even for the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee.
"He has a long ways to go. He's pretty moderate for these voters," said Waring Howe, a Charleston, S.C., lawyer on the Democratic National Committee.
Dean, the former Vermont governor, surged in polls and fund raising after his staunch opposition to the Iraq war proved emblematic of a broader anti-establishment message aimed at the White House and compliant Democratic leaders in Washington.
Lieberman, one of Dean's targets by implication, is trying to turn the tables. "Howard Dean is going to have a hard time getting elected" because of his stance on Iraq, the senator said in an interview between campaign stops.
"If we nominate somebody who's against all tax cuts, for big government-spending and sends a message of weakness on defense, the Democratic candidate is not going to have a chance in 2004," he said.
Lieberman has made the assertion before, but this time he named names -- albeit in an interview and not in front of a Democratic crowd.
He said Gephardt, the Missouri congressman, and Dean wanted to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts. He said Gephardt's health care plan gave tax breaks to businesses that don't need them, "but more to the point that I made about big-government spending programs, he ends up spending almost as much as Bush on those tax cuts."
And he accused Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, of "sending messages of ambivalence" by voting last fall for the Bush-backed war resolution then expressing doubts about the Iraq conflict.
"I love the biblical quote, which is actually from the New Testament; I've forgotten which one. It's about if the sound of the trumpet be uncertain who will follow into battle? I do think that Senator Kerry was sounding an uncertain trumpet about that particular battle," Lieberman said. The line comes from Corinthians.
If Lieberman is on the offensive, perhaps it's because his campaign needs a lift. His lead in national polls has evaporated, and he lags in key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.