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Conn. Race Could Be Democratic Watershed

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, here speaking to construction workers in his home state, appears to be paying a heavy price for supporting the invasion of Iraq.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, here speaking to construction workers in his home state, appears to be paying a heavy price for supporting the invasion of Iraq. (By Bob Child -- Associated Press)

Republicans are already seeking to exploit a possible victory by Lamont as a sign that Democrats are moving too far to the left on national security issues. "They want retreat -- under the guise of 'reducing the U.S. footprint in Iraq,' " William Kristol writes in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said it is a mistake to contend, as the Republicans are doing, that the Democrats have been captured by left-wing, antiwar activists, saying the Connecticut race most of all reflects discontent with Bush rather than an ideological awakening. "This is really about Bush," he said. "It's deeper than an antiwar thing."

Still, many party moderates say they see worrisome parallels to what happened to the Democrats during Vietnam, when they opposed an unpopular war but paid a price politically for years after because of a perception the party was too dovish on national security.

"Candidates know they cannot appease [antiwar] activists if they are going to run winning national campaigns," said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "It will intensify the tension inside the Democratic coalition as we head into two critical elections."

But leaders of the net-roots activists, and some party strategists, argue that as antiwar sentiment spreads Democrats stand to gain politically by aggressively challenging Bush's war policies. Parallels to Vietnam are inaccurate, they say, because of the nature of an Iraq war that has become a low-level sectarian civil war.

"If Democrats were winning elections, that prescription would be something worth listening to," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org, said in response to the party's moderate wing. "That's the prescription people have been giving us, and we've been losing elections."

With much of the establishment backing Lieberman, Lamont initially built his campaign with the support of grass-roots activists disaffected with the incumbent and the president. Liberal bloggers around the country promoted his candidacy, helping to raise his profile while attacking Lieberman and attracting money (although Lamont's personal fortune has financed most of his campaign). They helped give voice to rank-and-file Democrats furious with Bush and frustrated by what they regard as cautious and ineffective party leadership in Washington, as well as to some local elected officials angry with Lieberman.

Lieberman enjoys the support of the party's national leadership, along with most of organized labor and key constituency groups. Former president Bill Clinton came here two weeks ago to campaign for Lieberman, vouching for his party bona fides and urging Democrats to put aside differences on the war. Hillary Clinton has said she wants Lieberman to win. Senate Democratic leaders back his candidacy and months ago urged MoveOn officials to stay out of the primary.

Come Tuesday night, if Lamont wins the primary, they will be forced to shift allegiance. Both Clintons have said they will support the winner of the primary, and other party officials plan to do the same.

Lieberman, however, has said that if he loses, he intends to run as an independent in the general election against Lamont and Republican nominee Alan Schlesinger. Party officials will have to decide whether to press him to abandon those plans and, if he declines, how strongly they will get behind Lamont's candidacy. Democrats hope to pick up three vulnerable Republican-held House seats in November and do not want a distracting Lieberman-Lamont general election battle to get in the way of those campaigns.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Friday he is not worried about the fallout from the Senate primary on House races, arguing that the message from Connecticut is that anyone supporting Bush's war policies is in deep trouble. "What's playing out here is that being a rubber stamp for George Bush is politically dangerous to life-threatening," he said.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff sees the Connecticut Senate race as critically important in shaping the midterm campaigns. "This will embolden Democrats around the country," he said. "I think that this primary in its own way sets off a chain of events that makes the fall elections very quickly a debate that could be framed as a [Democratic] timeline [for withdrawing U.S. forces] versus Republicans supporting a longer-term solution."

All of that may bode well for the Democrats, given sentiment about the war. As Democratic pollster Peter Hart put it: "What [Connecticut] tells us about the fall is something I think we've known all along, and that is the status quo in Iraq is unacceptable. It's unacceptable to Democratic primary voters, it's unacceptable to independents and it's unacceptable to a large minority of Republicans. Iraq is the number one issue and the message is exceptionally simple: We cannot abide the status quo."

Connecticut is a liberal, Democratic-leaning state, by no means a reflection of the rest of the country. Still, politicians in both parties will react if Lieberman loses. "I think that the overriding pressure on people in 2007-2008 in both parties quite frankly will be the pressure to be credible on what comes next and how we get out," Democratic strategist Anita Dunn said.

Borosage, who has battled moderates in the party for years, offered a word of caution for Democratic opponents of the war, noting that while public opinion is with the Democrats, Republicans have been successful in portraying their opponents as weak. Without a muscular alternative to Bush's policies, he said, "I think the debate this fall is going to be a difficult debate, even with the war unpopular."


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