By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 7, 2006
EAST HAVEN, Conn., Aug. 6 -- In a dramatic bid to stave off a potential defeat in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) on Sunday rejected charges from rival Ned Lamont that he has been one of the chief cheerleaders for President Bush's Iraq policy, but he reaffirmed his belief that a hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces would prove disastrous for Iraqis and for the United States.
With polls showing Lamont leading the three-term incumbent, Lieberman at last moved to confront the issues -- opposition to the war and anger with Bush -- that have put his political career in jeopardy. The decision came after a lengthy debate within his campaign over whether he could win the primary without directly addressing his position on the war and his relationship with the president.
Campaigning with renewed intensity 48 hours before the balloting, Lieberman described himself as a proud and loyal Democrat who not only has opposed nearly all of Bush's domestic agenda but also has repeatedly criticized the administration's handling of the Iraq conflict.
Saying he still believes his vote to authorize the war was correct, Lieberman added: "What I don't think is right, as I've said over and over again, are many of the Bush administration's decisions regarding the conduct of the war. The fact is I have openly and clearly disagreed with and criticized the president."
Lieberman cited what he called Bush's failure to develop more allied support before the war, to have a plan to win the peace and to put more troops into the conflict. He recalled that, as far back as October 2003, he said he would have asked for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld if he were president. His staff handed out a five-page memo of past statements to buttress the claims.
Lieberman delivered his remarks Sunday evening at a community center in East Haven, with Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) and former Georgia senator Max Cleland (D), a Vietnam War veteran who lost three limbs in that conflict, at his side.
Lieberman argued that he has been a victim of the same kind of smear tactics that he said Republicans used to defeat Cleland four years ago.
Lamont's campaign responded with a statement accusing Lieberman of engaging in personal attacks against his opponent. "The senator has finally chosen to talk about issues, but we can't help but notice that, like [White House Deputy Chief of Staff] Karl Rove, he has chosen to appeal to people's fears," it said.
Lieberman campaigned across southern Connecticut on Sunday, telling voters that "I'm in a battle" against Lamont and urging them to turn out Tuesday. He described Sunday's speech as a closing argument to rebut "the two big lies" from Lamont's campaign: that he has been Bush's enabler on the war and is not a real Democrat.
In his speech, Lieberman acknowledged the anger he has felt along the campaign trail and said there may be little he can do to turn around his harshest critics. But he argued that he has never sought to discredit dissent over the Iraq war and pointed to his own record as an opponent of the Vietnam War as evidence.
"I not only respect your right to disagree or question the president or anyone else -- including me -- I value your right to disagree," he said.
Lieberman also sought to clarify a December comment in which he appeared to upbraid Democrats for criticizing Bush, saying that "in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril." On Sunday he said the words were meant not to stifle criticism but to warn against the kind of partisan exploitation that he said Republicans had used against Cleland.
As a supporter of the war, he said, he feels a heavy responsibility to try to end it quickly and successfully.
"I want to get our troops home as fast as anyone, probably more than most, and as I have repeatedly said, I am not for an open-ended commitment," Lieberman said. "But if we simply give up and pull out now, like my opponent wants to do, then it would be a disaster for Iraqis and for us."
The incumbent drew on friends and colleagues to help make the case for him Sunday. To help rally African Americans, a crucial constituency in the primary, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker joined Lieberman for services at black churches in Stamford and Bridgeport.
Norton told members of the congregations that Lieberman had stood with African Americans on critical issues and should not be rejected Tuesday simply because of his support for the war.
She called Lieberman "dead wrong" on the war but said many other Democrats in the House and Senate were on the same side as the Connecticut senator, "including the front-runner for president of the United States, [New York Sen.] Hillary Clinton. She agrees with him, and is anybody going to vote her out of office anytime soon?"
Lieberman brushed aside questions about whether he will run as an independent if he loses the primary, as he had previously indicated. He said for now he is focused on trying to win Tuesday.
In East Haven, Lois Ruocco attended the speech with her daughter, Stacy, granddaughter Alexandra and husband, Gene, who is the Democratic town chairman. A Lieberman loyalist, she said she hoped the speech would encourage voters "to ignore what they're hearing in the television ads and remember who he really is -- a good guy and a good Democrat who has done a lot for everyone."