By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006
HARTFORD, Conn., July 6 -- Shunned by many in his own party because of his vigorous support for the war in Iraq, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman clashed in a debate Thursday with a well-financed challenger who has roiled Connecticut politics and turned the Democratic primary into a national test of the antiwar movement.
In a hard-hitting 30-minute exchange about the war, Lieberman sought to portray his opponent, Ned Lamont, as a fringe candidate with little grasp of the military and geopolitical stakes in Iraq. Lamont assailed the incumbent for ignoring reports of rising violence and instability, and for cheering on President Bush "when he should have been asking the tough questions."
Lieberman defended the conflict as "a lot better, different" than a year ago. "They're on the way to building a free and independent Iraq," he asserted. "The question is, are we going to abandon them while they are making that progress?"
Lieberman headed into the night with vastly diminished party support after a nearly four-decade political career that included a turn as his party's 2000 vice presidential nominee. Earlier this week, he signaled that he will run as an independent this fall if he loses the Aug. 8 primary -- a possibility, according to recent polls. Lieberman's agreeing to debate Lamont on television was interpreted by some political analysts here as evidence that he is worried about the primary.
Connecticut, with its large pool of Democrats and independents, has become a focal point for the opposition to the war in Iraq. Just as Republicans are feeling heat throughout the country for supporting an increasingly unpopular war, Lieberman and moderate Republicans from the Northeast are finding that backing the president's Iraq policy can cost them substantial support within their traditional base.
Lieberman, 64, a three-term senator, once was praised by party leaders for his independent thought and civility of spirit. But he has become a lightning rod for Democratic animosity because of his unflinching support for the war, and his rebuke last month of Senate Democrats' calls for either setting a deadline for withdrawing troops or reducing troop levels beginning later this year.
Lamont has relentlessly hammered Lieberman as a rubber stamp for the president's war policies. One well-circulated image of the Lamont campaign, featured on buttons and in a television ad, shows Bush embracing Lieberman after the 2005 State of the Union address and appearing to kiss him on the cheek.
Lieberman used his opening remarks in Thursday's hour-long debate to complain that Lamont "seems to be running against me based on my stand on one issue, Iraq, and he is distorting who I am and what I have done."
"Let me tell you some things that may surprise at least Ned but shouldn't," he added. "I know George Bush. I've worked against George Bush. I've even run against George Bush, but I'm not George Bush."
Lamont disputed Lieberman's charges that he has equivocated on the war and has avoided taking tough stands, at one point snapping, "You're the only person in Connecticut who's confused by my position on the war."
Although Lieberman accused Lamont of frequently altering his views, the challenger declared that the administration should "absolutely" set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, a view shared by only a small number of Democrats in the Senate. "We have 135,000 of our bravest troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war," he said. "And I say that those who got us into this mess should be held accountable."
Lieberman and Lamont took turns lecturing each other. The veteran Democrat told Lamont, "When you're a senator, you've got to make decisions."
Lamont, recalling events that led to the invasion of Iraq, said: "President Bush rushed us into this war. He told us it would be easy, we'd be welcomed as liberators, that [we would find] weapons of mass destruction. And Senator Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way."
Lieberman was asked by a panelist why he decided to make an issue of Lamont's personal wealth, which is being tapped to fuel his campaign. "We really don't know who this man is," Lieberman declared. "I don't have that kind of money. I have to work hard" to raise millions of dollars to campaign.
As for Lieberman's decision to run as an independent if he loses the primary, Lamont said: "If you're going to run as a Democrat, play by the rules. You can't have it both ways."
Lieberman cast his decision as a bid to save the seat for Democrats. "I believe this man can't be elected in November," the senator said of Lamont. "He's a single-issue candidate who is applying a litmus test to me."
Lieberman's decision to run as an independent if necessary has led some national party leaders to distance themselves. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) took the unusual step of declaring before the primary that she would not support him as an independent candidate this fall.
Some analysts believe Lieberman would be well-positioned to win a three-way race in the fall, if it comes to that, but that is a prospect Democrats in Connecticut and throughout the country are not relishing. Lieberman was booed while he walked in a Fourth of July parade this week -- even as Lamont, marching behind a float depicting the Lieberman-Bush "kiss," was cheered.
Lieberman broke into politics as a reformist who opposed the war in Vietnam, and he won a state Senate seat in New Haven in 1970 with the help of, among others, Bill Clinton, who was a student volunteer at Yale Law. Lieberman was elected state attorney general in 1982. He challenged and beat maverick Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. in 1988, and went on to make his mark in foreign policy.
He was one of the leaders in the fight for the Persian Gulf War resolution in January 1991, and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he strongly backed Bush's terrorism fight in Afghanistan. That December, he joined nine members who signed a letter urging Bush to target Iraq next.
The primary battle offers a stark contrast between the two candidates: Lieberman, the stubbornly independent party veteran who denounced Clinton from the Senate floor during impeachment proceedings; and Lamont, the great-grandson of a J.P. Morgan chairman and a fresh face in Connecticut politics who is strongly critical of the war.
A major problem for Lieberman is timing. Turnout probably will be light for the primary, which would benefit Lamont and his highly motivated supporters, analysts said. Moreover, Lieberman would have to submit 7,500 signatures the day after the primary to qualify to appear on the November ballot as an independent.
Lamont served as a Greenwich selectman years ago but is a neophyte in a statewide race. Lieberman has tried to depict him as a pawn of the left, and in particular as a tool of his political nemesis Weicker, who helped to lure Lamont into the race. One Lieberman ad revives the image of a fat, lazy bear that the senator used to evoke Weicker in 1988. This time, the bear has a cub -- Lamont.