By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the Democratic Party's 2000 vice presidential nominee and a leading voice of its centrist wing, announced yesterday that he will run as an independent in the November general election if he loses a primary battle next month to an increasingly popular antiwar candidate.
Lieberman, who not long ago appeared to be coasting to easy reelection with strong bipartisan support, now faces a potentially career-ending challenge from Greenwich millionaire Ned Lamont. The challenger has climbed in recent polls by tapping support from Connecticut liberals and others who recoil at Lieberman's strong support for the Iraq war.
A Quinnipiac University survey conducted in early June showed Lamont gaining ground against Lieberman. Among all Democrats, Lieberman led Lamont 57 percent to 32 percent, compared with 65 percent to 19 percent in a Quinnipiac poll taken a month earlier.
The margin was slimmer among likely Democratic primary voters, including undecided voters who are leaning toward a candidate, with Lamont trailing the incumbent 55 percent to 40 percent, the June poll found.
As his lead narrows, Lieberman has weighed an alternative option: collecting 7,500 voter signatures to secure a place on the November ballot as an independent. But the due date for that option is Aug. 9, one day after the primary -- meaning that Lieberman must begin collecting signatures well before he knows the outcome against Lamont.
Lieberman said that his bid had no bearing on his party affiliation and that he would present himself as a "petitioning Democrat" rather than an independent, although that is how he would be listed on the ballot.
"I have been a proud, loyal and progressive Democrat since John F. Kennedy inspired my generation of Americans into public service," Lieberman said yesterday on the steps of the state Capitol in Hartford. "And I will stay a Democrat."
Although Lieberman said he remains confident that he will beat Lamont, two wild cards make him and his supporters exceedingly nervous.
One is that the primary will take place in early August, when many voters may be on vacation. A low turnout could draw a disproportionate share of highly motivated Lamont supporters. Lieberman predicted that turnout could be as low as 25 percent.
The other factor is Lamont's wealth, amassed from a cable-television business he founded. "What if my opponent, who says he is worth somewhere between $90 [million] and $300 million, decides to write bigger and bigger checks in the last weeks of the campaign?" asked Lieberman, addressing his supporters.
Democratic leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), spoke to Lieberman yesterday morning and said they will continue to back him in the August contest.
"Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and the DSCC are supporting Joe Lieberman in the primary," said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its chairman, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). "We aren't going to speculate about what happens next because that would undermine our candidate."
But senior Democratic sources acknowledged that Lieberman had placed his party in a difficult position by potentially throwing into chaos a Senate race that Democrats had long assumed they would easily win.
Last month's Quinnipiac poll found that Lieberman would have the clear advantage in November. He would easily defeat Republican Alan Schlesinger, 68 percent to 14 percent, while Lamont would lead Schlesinger 37 percent to 20 percent, with 34 percent undecided. Running as an independent, Lieberman would win 56 percent of support, compared with 18 percent for Lamont and 8 percent for Schlesinger.
Lamont, who will debate Lieberman on Thursday night in Hartford, said his opponent's move shows a lack of respect for Democratic voters.
"We are confident that the voters in November will find in our campaign a positive voice for the change in Washington that we all deserve," Lamont said in a statement.