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Lieberman's Post-Gore Rebound

CBS News Reporter Tali Aronksy is traveling with the Lieberman campaign.



For presidential candidates, no news is bad news. And sometimes bad news is good news.

Much has been written about Al Gore endorsing Howard Dean in recent days: what a big boost for Ho-Ho, how embarrassing for Joe, a real finger in the eye to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton. However, the real change in Lieberman's campaign is in Lieberman's face. It's red. Suddenly, Joe is angry.

In a letter to supporters today, Lieberman threw down the gauntlet, "This race … is a fight for the soul and future of the Democratic Party." And Lieberman wants to be part of that future, not a specter of Democrats past.

In a thinly-veiled jibe at Al Gore, Lieberman asks, "Will we carry the pro-growth, strong on defense, fiscally responsible, socially progressive policies of the Clinton era into the 21st Century? Or will we slide backwards into the failed policies of our party's past?" For this mild-mannered candidate, a little fire in the belly is just what the doctor ordered.

On Tuesday, Lieberman's day of reaction began hesitatingly. In a morning appearance on "The Today Show," Lieberman sounded like a guy who had just been dumped by his prom date. Later in the afternoon, though, Lieberman began to recoup. At a press availability in Durham, N.C., Lieberman walked in, took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

For a candidate such as Dean, this is par for the course: sleeves up, biceps flexed, ready for business. But we're talking about Uncle Joey here, a guy who, when I interviewed him for an upcoming CBS Weekend News piece, spent the first few minutes worrying his N.H. press secretary Kristen Carvell about whether he should take off his new, royal blue L.L. Bean parka. He later shed it.

However, by late afternoon and with all eyes watching, Lieberman didn't need the jacket. He was fired-up. "I feel determination. I'm more determined than ever to carry forward," he told the crowd assembled at Benjamin's Restaurant. This change was palpable to CBS Reporter Steve Chaggaris.

"Lieberman didn't seem like a guy whose former running mate had endorsed another candidate…in fact, he was fired-up,'' said Chaggaris.

Lieberman carried this momentum into the ABC debate later that evening. He was fiesty, not whiny. "I've been stopped in the airports, people angry about what happened. And I was raised to face adversity in one way: double my determination to continue to fight for what's right." And, according to The Hotline, Lieberman racked up the most air time — a nice rebound following his omission from the Des Moines debate.

But Lieberman needs to make the case to voters that he is in it to win it: That he will step into the ring, fight and sweat and try really hard. Too many times, in too many stump speeches, day care visits and town hall meetings, Lieberman's will preface a speech with "If I were president, I'd …" or end a rally with "Come visit me at the White House" but in a tone that is half-hearted. The impression he gives is 'vote for me; it's the right thing to do, but pinch me if enough people actually take my advice and put me in the White House.'

Fortunately, a pre-produced ad airing this week in the New Hampshire market plays nicely off Al Gore's endorsement of Howard Dean. In the latest spot, Lieberman tells voters, "for years, New Hampshire primary voters have been knocking down the predictions of the pundits, because you make up your own mind."

What remains to be seen how team Lieberman will fare from here on out, whether Lieberman will fight for what could be his or whether the new-found fire in his belly will flicker and fade.

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