Presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman is warning that Democrats who advocate peace and expensive social programs "could send us back to the political wilderness," challenging the populist message being touted by rival candidate Howard Dean.
Lieberman will not name Dean in a speech Monday to the National Press Club, but his criticism is clearly aimed at the former Vermont governor's stand against President Bush's tax cuts and aggressive foreign policy.
"I share the anger of my fellow Democrats with George Bush and the direction he has taken this nation," Lieberman said in text prepared for delivery. "But the answer to his outdated, extremist ideology is not to be found in the outdated extremes of our own. That path will not solve the challenges of our time, and could send us back to the political wilderness for years to come."
Dean's campaign has taken off by appealing to liberals fed up with Republican control in Washington. Meanwhile, Lieberman's early lead in the polls - the benefit of being the best-known in a large field - dwindled over the past few months.
Now the Connecticut senator is looking to boost his campaign by becoming the anti-Dean.
Lieberman, an outspoken supporter of war with Iraq, says Democrats must focus on defense and the economy to win over Americans still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the resulting financial fallout.
"The answer is in moving forward with new and responsible ideas that can put us on the road to security, prosperity and victory," Lieberman said in the speech text. "That is what I am fighting for, and what I will fight for through every single round of this fight."
Dean and Lieberman represent Democratic factions fighting to set the party's direction.
The argument from the liberal wing is that Democratic losses in the past decade are due to the party's abandonment of its central principles.
Dean has ridden the tide of this liberal angst. He opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq and wants to repeal President Bush's tax cuts. In his speeches, he declares that it is time to "take our country back" and warns that Democrats cannot beat Bush by being Bush-lite.
Dean has attracted Democrats who have become disaffected by welfare reform, hawkish military positions and a pro-business posture taken by the party. Some ran to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000; others will just stay home on Election Day and give victories to Republicans, the liberals say.
Lieberman has been comparing himself to Bill Clinton, who embraced the centrist movement is his 1992 campaign and through his leadership of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. These centrists say Democrats can only win the election by neutralizing Republicans on some issues and winning moderates.
Others in the presidential race are embracing parts of both the liberal and moderate movements. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri supported the war in Iraq but proposes repeal of Bush's tax cuts to pay for health care for all Americans.
Other candidates, including Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina, also are seeking middle ground. They want to repeal Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, but say parts of the president's plan, like child tax credits, should be kept because they benefit the middle class.
The struggle is a natural part of primary politics for either party. All the dissension, however, is worrying some in the party who want to make it clear that Democrats have more in common than in dispute.
Donna Brazile, candidate Al Gore's campaign manager in 2002, says the liberal-moderate fight could leave both sides with black eyes.
"It reflects the fact that we don't have a leader to crack down on it," she said. "Once we have a nominee, this will be history."
Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a backer of Gephardt's candidacy, said the GOP has as much diversity in its ranks. The difference, he said, is Republicans have discipline, and "they don't go around criticizing their own."
"The DLC and even Lieberman would probably be best off by running their own positive campaigns rather than whining about other candidates or whining about unions or whatever," he said. "People in our party who critique us probably do more damage to us than the Republicans do."
By Nedra Pickler