Tough Primary Race Confronts Lieberman

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D) said the primary challenge is not a surprise. A majority of state voters oppose his support for the Iraq war, a poll showed.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D) said the primary challenge is not a surprise. A majority of state voters oppose his support for the Iraq war, a poll showed. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- With his ruddy tan and dark gray suit, Ned Lamont is an antiwar liberal with a twist. Rather than targeting a Republican, the millionaire Greenwich businessman is challenging a fellow Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, one of President Bush's strongest supporters on the war in Iraq.

When Lamont announced his primary challenge in mid-March, he was viewed as the longest of long shots, a quixotic blueblood who was scratching a political itch. While many Connecticut Democrats had soured on Lieberman over his war stance, a poll showed that voters backed the three-term senator over Lamont by 5 to 1.

But in the space of six weeks, the newcomer has come on strong. Lamont raised $344,111 from 4,337 online donors and added $371,500 of his own money. He hired a staff of seasoned professionals and signed up several thousand volunteers. The 52-year-old cable television entrepreneur is blitzing the state, hitting as many as three events per evening.

Now, Lamont has turned the Democratic primary into a horse race, giving Lieberman his first real test since he joined the Senate 18 years ago, according to Democratic operatives and analysts in Connecticut. Party leaders were so rattled by the challenge that Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called Lamont asking him to back off.

"Some of the party brass said, 'Ned, don't jeopardize a safe seat,' " Lamont recently told students at Southern Connecticut State University, who gathered for a meet-and-greet session. "But you're not going to lose a senator. You're going to gain a Democrat."

The race is one of the few in the country in which a well-established incumbent is being threatened by a challenger from his own party. It suggests that no member of the House or Senate can take reelection for granted, given the voter disenchantment with Iraq and a Congress weakened by a corruption scandal and a meager record of accomplishments.

"I'm not surprised that there's a primary challenge," Lieberman conceded. According to a February poll by Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of state voters said invading Iraq was the wrong thing to do. But the former Democratic vice presidential nominee said he will not back down from his position.

"It's one that I believe is in the best interests of the country," Lieberman said recently, after a trip to the Middle East. If he has put his job at risk, he said, so be it. "We're having a good healthy debate up here," Lieberman said.

Lamont asserts -- usually to a sea of nodding heads -- that the United States should continue providing support to the Iraqis, but that "our front-line military troops should begin to be redeployed and our troops should start heading home."

Voters greet him with a mixture of curiosity and relief. "This is the first I've heard of him," said Kylie Welsh, a 27-year-old student who said she is tired of Lieberman's pro-war views. "I need to do some more research, but I think it's time for somebody new."

Despite Lamont's strong early push, Lieberman enjoys major advantages, including national name recognition and a formidable fundraising ability. Lieberman entered politics in 1970 and served as a state senator and attorney general before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1988. He was Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, and he waged an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination four years later.

With nearly $4.8 million of campaign funds in the bank as of March 31, Lieberman rolled out two statewide ads about a week ago, including one that directly confronts the war. "I already know that some of you feel passionately against my position on Iraq," Lieberman says in the ad. "I respect your views, and while we probably won't change each other's minds, I hope we can still have a dialogue and find common ground on all the issues where we do agree."

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