When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visited Iraq for three days over the Thanksgiving holiday with a congressional delegation that included Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., they discussed his presidential quest.
A couple of weeks later, according to a McCain campaign aide, McCain called Lieberman — approached him on "bent knee," as McCain facetiously put it — to ask if the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee would endorse him. At the time, McCain was gaining in the polls in New Hampshire but still trailed Mitt Romney, former governor of the neighboring state of Massachusetts, by a double-digit margin.
McCain said today he was reluctant to ask for Lieberman's help. "I didn't want to do anything that may cause damage to his political future. I just asked him, and I said, 'I'd like to have your support,'" he said. "I felt it would be impactful; otherwise, I wouldn't have asked for it."
Lieberman took a few days to think about it. He discussed it with his wife, Hadassah, and his children. Apparently, the family advice was not unanimous.
"I think Joe would be the first to tell you he got very mixed opinions," McCain said.
In the end, Lieberman told his Senate colleague and old friend that he would endorse him.
"John McCain is the best candidate to be president, and … the election of the president this year is too important to be decided just on partisanship," Lieberman said.
Standing outside in the crisp, subfreezing sunshine, as he was about to head back to Washington, D.C., Lieberman was asked by a reporter how his endorsement across party lines might affect his standing with the Senate Democratic Caucus.
He smiled mischievously. "I'm the 51st vote, so ..." He left the sentence unfinished. He was, of course, alluding to the fact that he — along with Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who also caucuses with the Democrats — provides the party's Senate majority.
If he were to defect to the GOP Caucus, the Senate would be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, giving Vice President Dick Cheney the deciding vote in case of a tie.
In other words, the Democrats are not likely to mess with Lieberman. Still, McCain described Lieberman's decision to publicly support him as a "courageous act."
How valuable is Lieberman's endorsement?
The McCain campaign says his support can influence some New Hampshire independents, and even some Republicans, who admire him for his long-standing support for the war in Iraq, and his willingness to challenge his own party.
Campaign officials think it would also burnish his national security credentials, and at a time when Republican contenders Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani regularly snipe at the Democratic presidential contenders, a Lieberman endorsement is meant to show voters — put off by the interparty squabbling — that McCain is willing and able to reach across the aisle to Democrats.
"I have seen John time and time again rise above the negativism and smallness of our politics, to get things done for America," Lieberman said, at the official endorsement announcement at a McCain rally in Hillsborough, N.H.
Even though he ran with Al Gore in 2000, Lieberman has never been the model Democrat.
His conservative foreign policy positions, and support for the Iraq War, conflict with the positions of other Democrats. He chastised President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
More recently, he is said to be bitter that most of his Senate Democratic colleagues deserted him after he lost his party's nomination for re-election in 2006.
McCain did not endorse his re-election bid that year, but he did not support the Republican nominee, either.
McCain campaign officials said Lieberman would be campaigning for McCain, who added that he would also act as an adviser.
It has been a good couple of days for McCain. Lieberman's backing follows his endorsement by the Boston Globe and the Des Moines Register. McCain, however, is far behind in Iowa and barely campaigning there.
But it is hard to gauge how much endorsements of any kind mean these days. As the Hillsborough event broke up, a middle-aged woman from Derry said she was an undecided independent, torn between McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.
Would Lieberman's endorsement influence how she votes? "No," she said.