On Wal-Mart, Lieberman and Challenger Can Agree
Thursday, August 3, 2006
BRIDGEPORT, Conn., Aug. 2 -- Their handshake was perfunctory, and their eyes never met after it was over.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and his rival in Tuesday's riveting Senate primary, antiwar Democrat Ned Lamont, crossed paths briefly here Wednesday on the sweltering plaza of the Bridgeport City Hall Annex. Not even the near-100-degree midday heat could melt the ice in a relationship that has highlighted the Democratic Party's divisions over Iraq and turned Connecticut into the temporary center of the political universe.
The two rivals came to bash Wal-Mart, the giant retailer that is the target of a nationwide bus tour this month sponsored by WakeUpWalMart.com. But the jostling by photographers and the taunts from the clutch of young Lieberman and Lamont volunteers told the real story, that of a three-term senator scrambling to stave off an embarrassing defeat at the hands of a wealthy novice.
Lieberman spoke first, gently broaching what was on everyone's mind. "As you might tell from the galaxy of signs out there, there's a political campaign going on," he said. "Did you know that? And there's people who will be speaking today who are in pretty spirited contests and debates with one another. You know that, too. But here's the great news: We're all together today in wanting to wake up Wal-Mart and say, 'Treat your workers fairly.' "
Lamont stood a few paces to Lieberman's left, appearing slightly uncomfortable -- hands folded, tie securely in place, barely a hint of perspiration on his forehead. After Lieberman finished, he quickly exited to the right, never looking back at his challenger. Lamont, when he finally got the microphone, was brief but blunt.
"As I look down at Washington, D.C., right now, I want the Democrats to stand up and say what they're for," he said. "We believe that universal health care is a basic right for each and every American. And it won't take me 18 years to go down to Washington, D.C., and to get that done."
As Lamont spoke, Lieberman disappeared into the big green bus that has been ferrying him around the state in the campaign's final days. A placard reads "Joe's Tomorrow Tour," a name the senator attributes to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign theme song, which features the refrain "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow." Lieberman thinks a Clinton appearance on July 24 rejuvenated his faltering campaign.
"You know there's been a lot of nonsense put out by my opponent that I'm not a Democrat or this or that," he told reporters outside Noel's Supermarket in Colchester on Tuesday. "But Bill Clinton came in, the true head of the Democratic Party in America, and said Joe Lieberman is a fighting Democrat."
Lieberman is depending on the state's Democratic establishment to bail him out. In New London, two former mayors were there to greet him when he arrived at a center for senior citizens. "Iraq is a major, major issue," said Margaret Curtin, a New London City Council member. "I certainly am not for the war myself. But I have to take a look at the other issues and the other things that he's done throughout the 18 years -- not only the 18 years in the United States Senate but the years in the state Senate in Connecticut."
At a construction site in Oakdale, Lieberman rolled out his allies in organized labor. "You don't forget who your friends are," said Chuck Appleby, business manager of Local 24 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. "The other guy, all I know, runs a non-union communications company. This guy's been solid since the day I met him."
But one encounter at the construction site highlighted how much Lieberman's support for the war has put him at odds with much of his own party. Roger Manning, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, praised the senator for bucking his party on Iraq and said he has changed his voter registration to Democrat to support Lieberman in the primary. "I appreciate your stance," Manning told him. "You're standing by the soldiers and taking a tough stance against a lot of people in your own party. It's tough."
Since May 1, the Connecticut secretary of state's office reports, 6,716 unaffiliated voters have changed their registration to the Democratic Party. An additional 10,334 people are newly registered as Democrats since May 1.
It is widely believed that many have done so not to support Lieberman but to support Lamont. Peter Bierrie of Essex is one of them. He changed his registration this week to Democrat to vote for the challenger. "I just hate to see all these guys getting killed and nobody wants to say it was a mistake," he said of the Iraq war as he left a Lamont rally in East Haddam on Tuesday night.
Lieberman has said he will seek to run as an independent if he loses Tuesday's primary, but right now he is trying to corral as many Democrats as he can, reminding them of the jobs he saved and the money he has brought to the state. But there is only occasional passion or energy in the responses he receives from the small clusters of voters he encounters.
The most enthusiastic voter Lieberman ran into on his rounds was someone who cannot help save him on Tuesday. Susan Bushey said she saw Lieberman's bus in Colchester and, with four of her five children in tow, pulled into the parking lot to offer moral support.
"Good luck to you," she said to him. "I'm a Republican and I want to vote for you."
"Well, stay around for November," Lieberman said.