CBS News Reporter Tali Aronsky is traveling with the Lieberman campaign.
Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see something that's right in front of you. Early this week, my fresh pair of eyes came in the form of Ira Teinowitz. Teinowitz is the Washington bureau chief for the trade magazine Advertising Age. He was in New Hampshire to follow Joe Lieberman on the stump, not on the air, for a change.
It was clear that Teinowitz hadn't been out to New Hampshire recently; he certainly wasn't dressed for the wintry weather or for the several inches of snow that needed to be negotiated.
But he was right on target during a press availability at Raymond High School, Lieberman's fourth event of the day. "Senator, we're roughly three weeks before the New Hampshire primary. Now, today's my only day on the campaign but we've seen very few voters going in this morning from 7:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m.," Teinowitz said. "Why are you seeing such few voters? If, as you say, you're gathering support, then why aren't you seeing a whole lot more people coming out and supporting you?"
Teinowitz had made one of those "essential" observations that had eluded many of the regulars: many voters are just not curious about Joe.
This was not exactly the press question Lieberman was hoping for. "What a negative question to ask!" Lieberman shot back. But, ever the professional, Lieberman quickly began to spin. "This is retail voting. I'm reaching out to people individually," he explained, and then offered this reasoning for the low voter-turnout. "You don't find too many crowds gathering at 8 o'clock in the morning when I had my 'Cup of Joe with Joe' [at the Tilt'n Diner in Tilton]."
New Hampshire is a small world. And, as luck would have it, the Tilt'n Diner came up in a conversation I had earlier in the day with a pair of undecided voters in Laconia. Jack and Brenda Polidoro came to hear Lieberman speak about healthcare at a family-owned garage there. Remarkably, but not unusual for the Lieberman campaign, the Polidoros were two of only a handful of non-press, non-garage employees who showed up at Belknap Tire.
"We read about the event in the paper and decided to come," Jack Polidoro said. Lieberman is the sixth Democratic candidate the Polidoros have heard: Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich are still on their must-see list. When I asked the couple about crowd turnout at other candidates' events they mentioned a recent John Edwards event they attended at the Tilt'n Diner. "The crowd was out the door," Brenda Polidoro said. Granted, maybe there was greater turnout for Edwards because it was lunchtime, but I suspect that's not the only reason for the disparity.
Back at Raymond High, Teinowitz carried on. "But shouldn't you be seeing more people if your campaign is successful?" Lieberman was quick to respond that "the crowds that matter are on Primary Day or Election Day." Apparently, Lieberman was not the only one offended by Teinowitz's line of questioning. After the media event, Lieberman's New Hampshire press secretary, Kristen Carvell, came up to Teinowitz and scolded him. "That was NOT a fair question," Carvell said.
But it's not a question of fairness, it's a question that stabs at the heart of Lieberman's campaign: Why doesn't he draw bigger crowds?
Covering Lieberman's campaign, one cannot help but hear from voters time and time again about the senator's honesty and sincerity. Even Republicans have nice things to say about Joe; they say "If I weren't a registered Republican, I'd vote for Lieberman."
So, what gives? Why isn't Lieberman doing better in the polls? Why don't more people come out to see him?
Could it be that it is precisely Lieberman's solid name – and personality – recognition that explains the small turnouts? Many Americans seem to feel that they already know who he is. As Frank Zielinski, an undecided voter from Milford, N.H., put it, "I like Lieberman. I liked him back when he ran for vice president in 2000. He's a really nice guy. Honest."
Hadassah Lieberman often points out that she's "proud to say that with my husband Joey, what you see is what you get."
Perhaps it's the very new-ness and unknown-ness of candidates such as Clark, Dean and Edwards that gets voters to put on their boots and head out in the snow to see for themselves what the buzz is all about.
And therein lies the rub for Lieberman. For better or for worse, he is the kind of candidate many voters feel they already know well enough.
As we headed back to the press van after Lieberman's Raymond High School appearance, Teinowitz seemed unsure of himself. He kept asking the other journalists, "Was I wrong in asking that question? Was I too harsh?"
No, you asked the right question.
By Tali Aronsky