Oklahoma’s presidential primary is shaping up as Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s last best chance to notch a win in his increasingly complicated route to the Democratic nomination.
Lieberman has devoted considerable time and resources to the Sooner State, locked up the vast majority of the state’s elected officials, and seems a solid ideological fit for the state where moderate to conservative Democrats rule the party roost.
Lieberman even has family connections — his sister, Rietta, lives outside of Norman.
Much of Lieberman’s overall primary strategy is predicated on his winning several Feb. 3 states, with Oklahoma most prominent among them.
His decision to skip the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and his inability so far to improve his standing in New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary put even more pressure on Lieberman to win resoundingly in Oklahoma.
“We keep somebody alive or we frame this race between two people,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Parmley, who has not endorsed any of the candidates.
Pat Hall, an Oklahoma City lobbyist, former state party chairman and Lieberman backer, said, “Lieberman grabbed the top elected Democrats, and if he uses them properly, he will do very well in Oklahoma.
“If he doesn’t [use them], Lieberman will be swept out by the [former Vermont Gov. Howard] Dean people and the [Missouri Rep. Richard] Gephardt people,” Hall warned.
Lieberman has been endorsed by Rep. Brad Carson, state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, state Treasurer Bob Butkin, state Auditor Jeff McMahan, state House Speaker Larry Adair, and former state Senate President Pro Tem Stratton Taylor.
Former Democratic Sen. David Boren, now the president of the University of Oklahoma, and his son, state Rep. Dan Boren, are also with Lieberman. Dan Boren is running for the House in the 2nd district, which is being vacated by Carson as he bids for an open Senate seat.
“[Lieberman] has a great base of support from elected officials that filters down to the grassroots,” Carson said.
Oklahoma’s Democratic political establishment is not entirely unified behind Lieberman, however, as former Gov. David Walters, who ran for Senate in 2002, is heading up Dean’s campaign in the state and former Lt. Gov. Bob Kerr is behind Gephardt. Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) has the largest number of backers in the state Legislature.
Edwards is clearly not conceding Oklahoma to Lieberman, as he has traveled to the state twice as often as any of the other eight Democrats seeking the nomination.
“Edwards is taking adverse possession of a corner of Oklahoma,” Carson said. “I run into him every weekend.”
But, Parmley cautioned, “Visits and crowds don’t equate to votes. This is not Iowa or New Hampshire.”
Edwards’ staff in Oklahoma is very well-regarded, especially state director Ward Curtin, who was formerly the communications and political director of the state party.
The campaign aired two ads in the state in September. One detailed Edwards’ plan to give tax breaks to companies that keep jobs in the United States; the other touted his small-town roots.
Dean is the only other candidate to have run commercials in the state. His first ad, which began in late August, touted his work on health care in Vermont; the second outlined his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Neither candidate is currently advertising in the state.
Edwards “is concentrating his time in eastern Oklahoma,” said a Democratic source in the state, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The only time he comes to Oklahoma City is to raise money.”
Eastern Oklahoma is the part of the state that most closely resembles the South and is often referred to as “Little Dixie.” It is also the lone Democratic stronghold in the state.
Edwards has raised $222,000 from Oklahoma through Sept. 30, more than double the $98,000 Lieberman has collected, according to figures compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
On the opposite end of the fundraising spectrum, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has raised just $6,000 of his $20 million total in Oklahoma.
Hall praised Edwards as a “great stump speaker” but said the North Carolina Democrat isn’t “grabbing people.”
“I hope Edwards does not put all his eggs in the Oklahoma and South Carolina basket,” Hall said. “I think they are going to break.”
Gephardt has not paid as much attention to the state, but his backing from organized labor keeps him in the mix — as it does in many of the Feb. 3 states.
Gephardt recently opened offices in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and has set in motion a “Ten Weeks ‘til Tuesday” plan in which he will announce new in-state supporters every Tuesday until the primary.
While Dean drew national headlines for securing the backing of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, neither union will be particularly helpful to him in Oklahoma.
SEIU does not have a presence in the state and AFSCME is relatively weak, according to several observers.
Dean’s reputation as the most liberal of the major Democratic candidates may not garner him many votes in the state either.
“Dean is perceived to be so liberal and even Democrats in Oklahoma don’t like liberals,” said an unnamed Democratic source.
Carson agreed that the “bedrock Democratic voter is a conservative one.”
But, Parmley notes that while 70 percent of the Sooner State Democrats are moderate to conservative, the remainder are more liberal, which could prove an unexpected — and unplanned for — boon to Dean.
Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt and retired Gen. Wesley Clark will all focus their appeals on the moderate to conservative primary voters, leaving Dean a free shot at the liberals, which could boost him to the “mid 20s” in the primary, according to Parmley.
“[Dean] could come in number two and maybe find a way to number one,” he said.
Without question, Clark has run the most disappointing Oklahoma campaign, said a number of Democrats interviewed for this story.
A poll taken by Consumer Logic on behalf of the Tulsa World newspaper in mid-September — soon after Clark entered the presidential race — showed the former general leading the pack with 17 percent of the vote.
Dean had 13 percent, Lieberman 12, and Edwards and Gephardt 11 percent each in the survey.
Since then, however, Clark has done little right in the state.
“Clark fizzled,” said Hall.
“The Clark campaign seems to be the least organized,” said Parmley.
“Clark got exactly the wrong people involved in his campaign,” added one Democratic source. “He got people from Oklahoma who are not well-liked and couldn’t help him.”
In hopes of turning his campaign around, Clark hired Jessica Vandenberg last week to run his Oklahoma operation. Vandenberg ran Iowa for the presidential campaign of Florida Sen. Bob Graham until he dropped out of the race Oct. 6.