Lieberman's Eroding Base

Lieberman supporters rally in Rocky Hill, Conn., for the candidate, whose potpourri politics alienate many Democrats.
Lieberman supporters rally in Rocky Hill, Conn., for the candidate, whose potpourri politics alienate many Democrats. (By Bob Child -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Irving Stolberg is not just another Connecticut Democrat who wants Joe Lieberman out of office.

The former speaker of the Connecticut House is one of Lieberman's oldest allies in state politics. The two met as antiwar activists in the late 1960s and won seats to the legislature together in 1970, and Stolberg remained an admirer when Lieberman drifted to the political center, while Stolberg stuck to his liberal roots.

But this year, as Lieberman battles for a fourth term in the Senate, Stolberg has reluctantly endorsed his ally's Democratic primary opponent, multimillionaire businessman and political neophyte Ned Lamont. "It's been a wrenching decision. I've supported him every step," Stolberg said of Lieberman. "But the issues and the principles trump 40 years of friendship."

Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee and a major player on Capitol Hill for years, seemed invincible until a few months ago. But an insurgency fueled by liberal anger over the senator's support for the Iraq war, coupled with an agile, well-financed campaign by Lamont that capitalizes on that discontent, is threatening to topple Lieberman in the Aug. 8 Connecticut Democratic primary. If he loses, Lieberman is likely to run as an independent in November, drawing on his popularity with Republicans and unaffiliated voters. Yet the stunning turnabout is a cautionary tale of how quickly a political career can unravel.

The strain shows. At campaign events, Lieberman at times appears subdued and weary. He projects little of the cheerful enthusiasm that marked his long-shot presidential bid two years ago. "It's difficult personally," Lieberman said last week of the defections by party veterans such as Stolberg. "I am competing in the most difficult part of the Connecticut electorate for me."

In an editorial published today, the New York Times endorsed Lamont over Lieberman, arguing that the senator had offered the nation a "warped version of bipartisanship" by supporting Bush on national security.

Lieberman is accustomed to the rough and tumble of politics, and can be combative in his own defense, as he showed during a recent debate. But he said he has been jarred by the intensity of Democratic anger toward Bush -- and, by extension, toward him. Liberal bloggers have called Lieberman a "liar" and a "weasel."

"It's not just opposition to Bush," he said. "The hatred is so deep."

That Democratic ire "raises larger questions about our politics," Lieberman added. He thinks it ultimately undermines the effectiveness of government. But he makes no apology for his position on the war, having resolved long ago that he would not "be part of a partisan response."

Other Democrats, including Stolberg, considered challenging Lieberman this year, but Lamont had a crucial advantage. The great-grandson of a JP Morgan chairman, who founded a successful cable-television business, he has already spent $1.5 million of his own money and had raised an additional $1.3 million through June 30.

"I felt all along I would have a challenge," Lieberman quipped. "But I was hoping God would send me a poor one." The senator, however, has raised $7 .2 million for his campaign.

In Washington, Lieberman carved a niche in foreign policy and gained a national reputation as a collegial, moderate Democrat with a strong moral streak. Back home, though, his Democratic base narrowed. Traditional left-leaning voters were turned off by Lieberman's support for school vouchers, his criticism of affirmative action and his hawkish foreign policy views. They also resented his conciliatory style in the highly partisan, elbows-out environment of Capitol Hill in recent years.

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