Chez Vachon is a reassuring prop: one of those archetypal New Hampshire coffee shops where presidential candidates come to meet "real people" and discuss "real issues" before a roving throng of "real media." Joe Lieberman, flanked by aides and security guards, dropped by Friday to assert his "real guy" bona fides.
"Hi, I'm Joe Lieberman, I'm running for president," the Connecticut senator says. "What's on the back of your hat?" he asks Todd Forbes, a construction worker. Boom mikes hover, big furry ones.
"Ah, Celtics," Lieberman says. "Not bad." Reporters rush in to learn Forbes's name, occupation, home town. "Just like on TV," says Katya Sullivan, watching the spectacle from another table. There is a comfort in such cliches -- especially given the backdrop.
The nation is engaged in a dicey and uncertain war, which nearly everyone in Chez Vachon supports. So does Lieberman, the most hawkish Democrat running for president. He reassures people that "there is not one inch of difference between me and the commander in chief" on Iraq. He disagrees with President Bush on several issues, but it's hard to discuss anything else today, including the fact that he's running for president.
So why is he here, seeking the commander in chief's job? Is it even appropriate to pursue such massive ambition at a time of "standing together?" Like his Democratic opponents, Lieberman is asked a version of this question every time he campaigns. It makes for a delicate coffee shop kabuki.
"I think we're all sort of feeling our way in what to do," he says in an interview.
He is speaking in terms he never used when he ran for vice president in 2000: "homeland security," "shock and awe," "decapitation." The New Hampshire State Police have received 400 to 500 reports of potential terrorist-related activity, according to a front-page story in this morning's Manchester Union-Leader. This is not your father's New Hampshire whistle-stop.
Lieberman, 61, says he is acutely aware of how the world has changed since the last time he campaigned. "I don't pinch myself, but I do feel a sense of mission about this," he says. "The work of democracy must go on."
With solemn eyes and an impish grin, he visits the table where the requisite ol'-timers banter about politics every morning. The same group has come to Chez Vachon since 1978, explains the ringleader, Ray Scott. "I bet you guys solve a lot of problems," Lieberman says, to which Scott responds, "Yes, you bet we do."
Lieberman works more tables. He is morning fresh in a green-gray suit that matches his eyes. His white hair has lost most of what reddishness it had in 2000. He asks people what their "real" concerns are. He gets a few of "the economy" and "health care" and "education" and lots of Iraq.
While other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards and Richard Gephardt -- voted in Congress to authorize force in Iraq, none has supported Bush as strenuously as Lieberman. "I'm trying to take a leadership role in creating an atmosphere in bipartisan support," Lieberman says. Not just for U.S. troops, "but for our president as commander in chief." He offers none of the fire of Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor whose antiwar position has endeared him to many on the Democratic left.
Antiwar voters often say they respect Lieberman's refusal to finesse his position. "I respect that you basically know where you stand with him," says Kurt Ehrenberg, an antiwar Democrat from Rye. He says certain other Democrats -- he mentions Kerry -- are "waffling" on the issue. Still, at a recent Democratic dinner, Ehrenberg disrupted a speech by Lieberman by shouting "No war! No war!" He voted for Nader in 2000 and plans to support Dean in 2004.
As he schmoozes New Hampshire, Lieberman strikes an earnest and conciliatory tone. "He said something to me that I just loved," says Ray Scott. "He said that the U.S. soldiers don't have 'Democrat' or 'Republican' written on their uniforms. They have 'America' on their uniforms. I thought that was just terrific." He thinks Lieberman is terrific. But he is a Republican who will support Bush.
Lieberman is seeking a wedge of the vote whose size and makeup are unclear. Democratic activists in Iowa tend to be liberal and antiwar. Lieberman is barely campaigning there. New Hampshire Democratic activists are increasingly liberal also, and Dean seems to be playing well in both states. Lieberman is making friends. "We had some chitchat, exchanged some nice pleasantries," says Tom St. Martin, of Candia. "It didn't mean all that much to me, but it's part of the process."
Lieberman takes a seat across from Geoffrey Lombard, a Marine veteran of Durham, who is heartsick over the antiwar demonstrations. "These guys are just salt of the earth," Lombard says of the U.S. troops. "We just need to give them so much support. We need to tell them that we're on their side."
Lieberman looks him in the eye and reassures him that the troops will feel supported. In the Vietnam era, he says, dissent became destructive and divisive, but it hasn't happened this time and he doesn't expect that it will.
"Nobody dissents in Baghdad and survives." He takes two bites of an apple crepe and calls Saddam a "madman."
He stays at the table for 20 minutes. By the end of the visit, about 20 reporters and photographers have gathered. "It's an honor to meet you," says Frank Sullivan, a retired schoolteacher sitting next to Lieberman. "And it's an honor to eat breakfast in front of all these people."
Next, Lieberman meets with a group of firefighters in the quaint town of Derry. They discuss, among other things, how the department is preparing for biological and chemical attacks.
Lieberman and eight firefighters sit around a wooden table in the kitchen of the fire station. "I just wanted to thank everyone for raising up our guard and preparedness," he says.
He grew up near a firehouse, Lieberman tells them, and he had a friend whose dad used to be a firefighter. The room is crowded with press and is quiet except for the gurgle of a Bunn coffee machine. Above Lieberman is a TV that silently plays war coverage from Fox, and an enormous poster of three firefighters raising an American flag amid the World Trade Center ruins.
Lieberman receives a briefing on Derry's role in the area's regional hazmat response team. He is subdued and earnest, twisting a rolled-up packet of Equal between his fingers. An alarm sounds -- ENNNH -- and everyone who doesn't work here jumps.