A Boost for Lamont as Democratic Leaders Shift Support

Ned Lamont, the Democratic nominee, spoke to reporters and supporters at state Democratic Party headquarters Wednesday in Hartford. His campaign will now work to broaden his appeal beyond antiwar liberals.
Ned Lamont, the Democratic nominee, spoke to reporters and supporters at state Democratic Party headquarters Wednesday in Hartford. His campaign will now work to broaden his appeal beyond antiwar liberals. (By Darren Mccollester -- Getty Images)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 12, 2006

Democratic Senate nominee Ned Lamont will launch a general election bid in Connecticut next week with an expanded campaign operation of Washington-based reinforcements, in preparation for a bitter brawl with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman over the Iraq war and national security.

Lamont's upset of the three-term senator and former Democratic vice presidential nominee, who is now running to keep his seat as an independent, has forced a hasty reordering of political alliances, as prominent Democratic leaders and organizations shift their support to Lamont. The political novice is seeking help from party veterans in fundraising and communications, and in answering Lieberman's increasingly aggressive war defense.

Lamont and Lieberman face considerable obstacles as they head into the general election. For Lieberman, there are practical questions such as: How does he raise money and turn out voters, now that the Democratic establishment is in Lamont's corner? For Lamont, a key challenge is one of perceptions: Can he convey that he is more than just a single-issue candidate and broaden his appeal beyond the liberal antiwar voters who helped him win the primary?

Lieberman fired the first shot of the campaign's second phase Thursday morning. Hours after British authorities announced they had broken up a transatlantic airline bombing plot, the senator asserted to reporters that Lamont's antiwar stance increased the risk of such attacks. If the United States withdraws from Iraq, as Lamont and other Democrats advocate, "it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England," Lieberman said outside a Waterbury pizzeria.

Democratic leaders in Washington blanched at Lieberman's comments, which echoed Republican talking points. Lamont didn't directly respond to Lieberman's personal attack, releasing a statement on the alleged bomb plot that reiterated his call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. "We need to change course, and that means standing up to this administration and fighting for our security in a rational, serious way," Lamont said.

After a brief post-primary break, Lamont is scheduled to appear on two national talk shows Sunday and will hit the campaign trail in Connecticut on Monday morning. In the weeks to come, he is expected to be joined by numerous prominent Democrats, including 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, who is scheduled to campaign with Lamont on Thursday.

Also next week, the state's powerful labor unions will begin considering their next moves. The state AFL-CIO, which provided crucial turnout support to Lieberman on primary day, will hold an initial meeting to consider backing a general election candidate or staying neutral. The local Service Employees International Union, which endorsed Lamont in early August, is expected to stick with the nominee.

Both candidates are sprinting to raise money. Lamont spent about $4 million of his own on the primary -- more than he intended to, said his campaign manager, Tom Swan. Although the official tallies are incomplete, Lieberman was outspending Lamont through late July.

Despite gaining national attention, Lamont's campaign was run by a small group of dedicated state operatives and retained a grass-roots flavor through the primary. That basic approach will remain unchanged, Swan said, but as the campaign moves to a new scale, it will also look for help from outside sources, including party leaders and committees, and traditional Democratic donors such as trial lawyers.

"We're working on a variety of potential things that weren't available to us before," Swan said.

Political observers say three factors are likely to determine the race's outcome. One is Lieberman's ability to hold on to the mostly low-income, socially conservative Democratic voters who supported him in the primary. Second is which candidate prevails with unaffiliated voters, who constitute the state's largest voting bloc. Third is how many Republicans Lieberman draws -- which depends on whether the state GOP sticks with its current candidate, former state representative Alan Schlesinger, or finds a stronger replacement.

Lieberman's appearance in Waterbury on Thursday was aimed at the first and third groups. The senator was joined at the lunch-hour event by the town's Democratic mayor, Michael J. Jarjura, who led a turnout effort that delivered one of Lieberman's largest victory margins. Lieberman called Waterbury's mainly working-class residents "my kind of people -- lots of faith, lots of values."

But his tough talk on terrorism was directed at voters like Vincent Siefert, a civil engineer, father of four and solid Republican. Siefert said he agreed with the senator's hard line on Iraq: "I think we have to finish what we started." And he said of Lieberman, "He's not perfect, but he's done all right for us."

The most difficult group to pin down is the unaffiliated voters, who shift between Republican and Democratic candidates, usually following national trends.

Polls show that over the course of this year, Lieberman has lost ground with the group, mainly over his war position. According to a July Quinnipiac University poll, more than two-thirds of unaffiliated voters in Connecticut believe that the war is wrong and want U.S. troops withdrawn.

"That's a potentially large group that could begin pulling away from Lieberman," said Scott L. McLean, who chairs Quinnipiac's department of political science. "They seem to go where the center is, and in Connecticut that's antiwar. My guess is they'll break to Lamont before this is over."

Lamont also intends to promote his support for expanded health coverage, alternative energy technologies and universal preschool education to capture both Democrats and independents.

Three Democratic House challengers are trying to unseat GOP incumbents by appealing to the same groups. Chris Murphy, who is running against Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson in the Hartford area, said that while he once feared that Lamont's candidacy would distract from his own race, he now views it as an ideal complement. "I've come 180 degrees," Murphy said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company