Fighting for his seat but unapologetic

Lieberman lags behind primary opponent

August 04, 2006|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,SUN REPORTER

FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was strolling a leafy sidewalk in this shoreline suburb the other day, campaigning for votes, when the driver of a Toyota Prius spied him.

"Stop the war!" she shouted, leaning on the horn. "Bring the troops home! No more war!"

Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, is fighting for survival in what could be this year's most important contest. His candidacy has become a symbol of an unpopular war, of Washington's complacency and -- perhaps most significantly -- of a national party that may be on the verge of a transformation, with repercussions that could extend into the 2008 presidential race.

The Connecticut senator is in an increasingly uphill battle against a primary challenger, Ned Lamont, whose anti-war candidacy has sparked a level of excitement among liberal activists unmatched since Howard Dean's 2004 presidential try. It's also raised the anxiety level of Democrats concerned about a divisive, and damaging, intraparty struggle if Lieberman loses.

Lamont campaign signs have been spotted as far away as Washington, D.C., and his appearance on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report this week was described archly by the host, Stephen Colbert, as an interview with the man who is "destroying the Democratic Party."

A public opinion poll, released yesterday by Quinnipiac University, showed Lieberman 13 percentage points behind a surging Lamont. Two months ago, Lieberman led by 15 in the same poll.

In a state where President Bush's poll ratings are among the lowest in the nation, Lieberman, a centrist Democrat, has been stung by Lamont's charge that he is Bush's "enabler."

But the senator, unapologetic, said he wouldn't change stances he's taken, including his support for the war in Iraq, that have alienated former supporters. He is threatening to run as an independent in November if he loses the primary.

The latest poll found that two out of three Lamont supporters say their votes are mainly against Lieberman. Even close friends suggest the senator has only himself to blame.

"You know that statement `You make your own bed?,'" said state AFL-CIO head John Olsen, among Lieberman's staunchest backers. "Joe's in a sickbed, and we've got to get him out."

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, joining a phalanx of Democrats on a rescue mission for their colleague, said this week that it was his "sense" that Lieberman "has learned his lesson" and would take "a different view and perspective" if he won a fourth six-year term.

Lieberman, in an interview, denied that. He said another Lautenberg comment -- that Lieberman doesn't want to "backtrack on the things he said" because "Joe doesn't want to look like he's pandering" -- isn't true either.

"There are always moments when you wish something might have come out of your mouth better," he said. "But in terms of the substances of the positions that I've taken? No."

The primary is Tuesday, six years to the day from the apex of Lieberman's career: his introduction to the nation as Al Gore's running mate, making him the first Jewish-American on a major party ticket. Today, Gore, along with 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and some other leading Democrats, have declined to endorse him; others, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, are backing Lieberman in the primary but not if he runs as an independent.

Lieberman's re-election is seen as a referendum on Iraq, an issue that has divided Democrats. His defeat would be a danger sign for other incumbents, especially those who have supported the war and sided with Bush.

A Lieberman loss would be a major victory for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, putting new pressure on those Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2003 and have increasingly become targets of anti-war groups.

Likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was booed at a liberal gathering two months ago for refusing to endorse a date for a U.S troop withdrawal. Clinton, unlike other '08 hopefuls, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, did not campaign for Lieberman, though her husband, the former president, did.

Lamont, a wealthy heir and cable TV entrepreneur, has poured millions into his own campaign, but he has also drawn support from online activists and groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, the successor to Dean's presidential campaign. Liberal stalwarts, including Rep. Maxine Waters of California and the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton, have campaigned with Lamont in recent days.

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