By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 10, 2006
HARTFORD, Conn., Aug. 9 -- Democratic leaders embraced their new antiwar Senate nominee Ned Lamont on Wednesday, but his defeated rival, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) vowed to wage an independent crusade to save his seat and prevent the party from being captured by forces he said are out of the political mainstream.
At a unity breakfast in Hartford, state party officials, who had lined up almost solidly behind Lieberman in Tuesday's primary, including Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), pledged their support to Lamont in the general election campaign.
In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement that Lamont would have the national party's support. Also laying on hands for Lamont were such powerful party figures as former president Bill Clinton, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
In background conversations, Democratic officials gently signaled their desire that Lieberman abandon his independent candidacy but appeared reluctant to press him publicly. A senior Democratic official in Washington said leaders had met and decided to put off confronting Lieberman at least for a few days, to allow the senator time to absorb the implications of his loss and his new isolation from longtime colleagues and supporters. "There's a feeling that the dust needs to settle," the official said.
Lieberman, on the national ticket as Democratic vice presidential nominee six years ago, appeared committed to turning the general election into a contentious rerun of the primary. He said it would be "irresponsible and inconsistent with my principles" to step aside from the fall race. He also announced that he is shaking up his entire campaign staff, accepting the resignations of his entire team, including several veteran consultants who have served him for many years.
Meanwhile, Republicans showed their determination to try to exploit the results of Tuesday's primary in the November elections by claiming that Democrats have been captured by the antiwar left. Vice President Cheney, in a call initiated by his office to news service reporters, said Lieberman had been purged by a party ready to "retreat behind our oceans."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman charged in a speech in Ohio that Lamont's victory showed the Democrats had abandoned the internationalist traditions of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Democratic leaders said the charge was without merit and argued that the Connecticut primary showed broad opposition to President Bush's Iraq war policies that put Lamont closer to the mainstream than his critics. Some Democrats said Lamont's triumph was more likely to turn the midterm elections into a national referendum on the war.
Lieberman's campaign also confirmed an ABC News report that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had called the senator Tuesday night, but denied that the president's top political adviser had offered help and support in the fall. "We would not have been interested, regardless," said Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's campaign communications director.
Earlier that evening, Lieberman spurned a meeting with Dodd, his longtime colleague who had come to caution against making a hasty decision to run as an independent and to explain why he would be supporting Lamont in the fall, according to a Democratic official who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about events on primary night.
Lamont defeated Lieberman on Tuesday by 52 percent to 48 percent after a campaign in which Lieberman's support for the war and what his critics said was a too-cozy relationship with the president were the dominant issues. When he announced his candidacy earlier this year, Lamont was a lonely figure in the party, enjoying the backing of so-called Net-roots activists and bloggers but little else. His campaign tapped into grass-roots antiwar, anti-Bush sentiment in the state and the race became a national symbol of the debate over the war.
Lieberman conceded shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, and 12 hours after a victory speech, Lamont was the star attraction at a Hartford news conference with state Democratic Party leaders. The mood was boisterous. With turnout at 43 percent, the primary had shattered the previous record of 25 percent, suggesting a highly motivated Democratic electorate and an appetite across the state for change.
Speaking briefly at the Democratic rally Wednesday morning, Lamont laid out the three main issues of his campaign: bringing the troops home, expanding health coverage, and improving education. He acknowledged the broader implications of his victory. "I think people around the country are looking at Connecticut," Lamont said.
But there was an undercurrent of frustration, as Democrats considered the tangled implications of a Lieberman independent bid and began to separate themselves from a colleague who won his first seat as a Democrat in 1970. "This is a difficult moment," Dodd acknowledged. Referring to Lieberman, he said, "We're very, very good friends." And then Dodd endorsed Lamont.
Many Democrats see former president Clinton, who campaigned for Lieberman but now supports Lamont, or Dodd as likely emissaries to make the case to Lieberman to halt his independent candidacy.
Based on initial efforts, Lieberman appears unreceptive. Dodd, according to a knowledgeable Democrat, tried to approach Lieberman on Sunday to talk about post-primary decisions to no avail.
On Tuesday night, he knocked on the door of Lieberman's hotel suite, but no one answered. Eventually, he met with Sherry Brown, Lieberman's longtime adviser who was installed Wednesday as campaign manager.
Some Democrats believe it may take an external event, such as a poll showing that he probably would lose a three-way contest with Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger, to persuade him to change his mind. If Lieberman wants to reconsider, Dodd said, "He knows I'm here."
Party strategists who have studied Connecticut said Lieberman faces a challenging general election campaign running as an independent. But they said the fact that he had closed a sizable gap in the last week was reason for cautious optimism inside the Lieberman camp.
A CBS-New York Times exit poll found that 61 percent of those who voted in the primary said Lieberman should not run as an independent.
The party establishment's embrace of Lamont began shortly before Lieberman's concession speech. Reid, Schumer and Hillary Clinton phoned in with congratulations and offers of assistance. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) wrote a $5,000 check to the Lamont campaign and said he will pitch in as needed. Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), a war opponent who campaigned with Lieberman last month, offered to return to help Lamont.
Prospective 2008 Democratic presidential candidates also pledged their support. Asked by reporters in New York whether Lieberman should quit the race, Sen. Clinton said, "He has to search his conscience and decide what is best for Connecticut and for the Democratic Party, and then do what's right."
Tom Swan, Lamont's campaign manager, said his team will begin to pivot to a larger audience, by stressing Lamont's domestic priorities, including health coverage for uninsured people and early childhood education.
Two big challenges for Lieberman will be retaining some of the crucial institutional support that he gained in the primary, particularly from unions, which were instrumental in his Election Day turnout effort. But Lamont also must demonstrate that he can attract a broader audience than he did in the primary.
The Connecticut AFL-CIO decided to back Lieberman about a month before the primary and played a key role in turning out voters for him on Tuesday. President John Olsen said the state labor group will decide later whether to endorse anyone in the general election.
In a round of television interviews on Wednesday, Lieberman criticized the Lamont campaign, and said he is in the race to stay. "For me, it is a cause, and it is a cause not to let this Democratic Party that I joined with the inspiration of President Kennedy in 1960 to be taken over by people who are so far from the mainstream of American life," he said.
Gerstein said Lieberman had asked for resignations because he had concluded he "needed to shake things up and move in a different direction." Among the casualties were longtime consultants Carter Eskew, who produced Lieberman's ads, and the polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.