GWEN IFILL: Two Democratic candidates have decided to skip next year's first big national political test: January's Iowa caucuses. Senator Joe Lieberman and retired General Wesley Clark say they will save any firepower for the subsequent New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Smart political decisions, or simply necessary ones? For more on these latest developments along the presidential campaign trail, we're joined again by Adam Nagourney, chief political correspondent for the "New York Times." Hello, Adam.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Hey, Gwen, how you doing?
GWEN IFILL: I am great. Now, I understand that we have been taught that it's an article of faith that Iowa is the first big test. How can Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark afford not to campaign there?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think you put it pretty well a second ago. To a large extent this is for different reasons a decision born of necessity rather than a strategy. You'll hear them make a case that it's a different year for various reasons, but the fact of the matter is that both of them were in difficult straits in that state. And that's why they decided to move their resources to other states.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the difficult straits one by one. What was the difficult strait for Wesley Clark? He just got into this race.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: The difficult strait is that he just got into this race. I was there last week. Each candidates, the rest of them, have spent easily the past eight months doing the kind of work you need to do to prepare for the Iowa caucuses. It's not like a regular primary, it's much more organization driven. You have to get people out to 2,000 different precinct houses, in the middle of January for two hours. It's a very complicated system, and it's hard to do. And most of the most experienced Iowa hands are signed up with the candidates who are really competing there, Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt, John Kerry and John Edwards.
So I think they made a calculation that it didn't make any sense to try to play there. I should add to that, that there are a lot of Democrats in Iowa who think that was not a smart calculation. There is some boosterism going on here, we need to keep that in mind. But still the argument was, whatever park had done, people would have been like he got in the race late, all the stuff I'm saying to you now, got in the race late, dm have time to sign people up, yes still got 10 or 12 percent of the vote.
GWEN IFILL: But that didn't apply to Joe Lieberman who was the vice presidential nominee this last time ash. Why was he unable to get his motor running in Iowa?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: The problem with senator Lieberman is he is trying to run as a moderate Democrat. You know, very unambiguously for the war, in favor of various trade treaties which do not go well in Iowa at all. And this is a largely partisan Democrat, I mean not a bad way, but largely liberal leaning Democratic audience and he just wasn't getting traction there. I think the more he sort of tried, the more he realized that he wasn't going to go farther. But you made a good point. This is a guy who ran for vice president of the United States in 2000, and the idea of him skipping a state like this is pretty remarkable.
GWEN IFILL: In 1976 Jimmy Carter made Iowa, made the Iowa caucuses by investing lots of time there. Last time around, John McCain did the opposite, he skipped the Iowa caucuses and did fairly well in New Hampshire, even though he didn't get the nomination. Is this just a whole new formula that these two are coming up with?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think again it's a formula born of necessity. Here's the difference this year. They have calculated that because the calendar has been front loaded a bit, or more accelerated, is that they have another chance to break in, with both General Clark and Mr. Lieberman are calculating is that on February 3 when there are seven Democratic contests, those are more hospitable to them, on that day they'll breakthrough. For the two weeks before the caucuses on January 19, the story is going to be about for these guys, and for at least a couple of days after will be about the winner of the top people there. So it's an interesting gamble. I'm not convinced, one great thing about politics, is the rules keep getting rewritten, and maybe it will happen this year. At this point I'm not convinced that this is the case. But we'll see.
GWEN IFILL: I see from your story in today's paper that you spent Friday night at the venerable Polk County Democratic dinner.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Don't you wish you were there with me?
GWEN IFILL: I wish I was there. But barring that, I'm glad you were, talking to voters. What were they telling you about, not necessarily about these two candidates, but about who is impressing them and who is not at this stage?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: People to watch I think right now are Howard Dean, who is running a red hot campaign, this anti-war message has a lot of resonance there. He's a very sort of partisan Democrat, you've seen until the national appearances as well and I think it's really appealing.
Gephardt is an old-time favorite, he ran in '88, he won, he comes from neighboring Missouri, he has support of labor, for the reasons we talked about a second ago, the importance of organization, that's a big deal there.
John Kerry, most polls and I want to tell thaw polls in Iowa could not be less reliable, but that said, is running third. He has signed on some fairly impressive organizers, and I think has a lot of potential. His events, Gwen, tend to draw a lot of people to them, which is really interesting to me.
Then John Edwards, the Senator from North Carolina, has tried to sneak in will and is putting money and time there and we should look for him to do well. I also spoke to people about General Clark, I was working on this story. And I did not, the point I made today was I think if General Clark had decided to contest in Iowa, he might have found the going a little difficult. Were a little wary of him, part of it was there's some concern about his party identification, as you know, he signed on late to the Democratic Party and there's been stories about him appearing at Republican fundraisers, a Republican fund raiser praising President Bush, and I just came across a little bit of skepticism about him.
GWEN IFILL: When two major candidates make a decision like this, does this devalue Iowa as an early state or does it even make New Hampshire conceivably skippable?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Gov. Bill Sachs of Iowa might quarrel with this. But the fact is when we all write our stories or do our reports on January 19 or 20, given the current state of the race, assuming that General Clark and Lieberman are still considered strong candidates, we're all going to have second paragraphs, or third paragraphs that say but these candidates didn't participate. So I guess to a certain extent it does devalue or put an asterisk next to it. Secondarily, if the candidate wants to skip Iowa, he or she could skip New Hampshire, presumably.
One of the advantages of Iowa over New Hampshire is that it really puts a premium on aggressive on the ground meeting with small group of voters campaigning. We can argue forever about whether Iowa and New Hampshire are the right states to do that, they're certainly not cross sections of America. But the process, I would argue, is good for the candidates and good for the system. They can end up skipping them and just go to February 3, that will be a money driven primary/caucus, because there are so many states across the country, it will all be about television, there won't be much time for any in person campaigning unless you consider flying into an airport hangar personal campaigning.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, Adam Nagourney, see you at those airport hangars, see you on the road.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I'll see you at the Polk County dinner, Gwen.
JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight: Hydrogen for the car; an unofficial Middle East peace proposal; and a new sculpture center in Dallas.