Connecticut Crucible for a War Debate
When the three candidates in Connecticut's celebrated Senate race met for their final debate on Monday night in New London, only one of them appeared to be having a good time.
It was not Ned Lamont, the tense and fidgety businessman who had captured the Democratic nomination as an opponent of the Iraq war. It was certainly not Joseph Lieberman, the three-term Democratic senator who had lost the primary to Lamont because of his support of that war and is running as an independent. Lieberman looked exhausted and exasperated by his situation, even though polls show him to be in front.
No, the only person who was relaxed, good-humored and reveling in the moment was Alan Schlesinger, the bulky Republican nominee whom no one gives a chance of winning. He jabbed humorously and effectively at both his opponents, noting how ironic it was that "a Greenwich multimillionaire" such as Lamont was running as a Democrat, while Lieberman, whose long list of liberal positions Schlesinger cited, was "masquerading as a Republican."
When a raucous bunch of zealots in the theater audience interrupted Lieberman's closing statement, and the feeble shushing of the senator and moderator George Stephanopoulos failed to silence them, it was Schlesinger who stepped to the edge of the stage and, with his size and commanding voice, ordered them to pipe down -- receiving thanks from Lieberman for his intervention.
It is not clear what the performance by the underfinanced Schlesinger, who has been officially abandoned as a candidate by the state and national GOP organizations, will do to the race. Lamont strategists hope he will attract more voters from the Republican base and thereby deprive Lieberman of support he might get from Republicans grateful for his sticking with President Bush on the war.
Lamont has no appeal to those Republicans and is also losing to Lieberman among independents, who respond to the senator's claim that he follows his conscience on national policy and delivers for the state. Polls also show that Lieberman has been taking more than one-third of the Democratic vote from Lamont. Reducing that percentage has become the chief objective for the Lamont campaign.
Schlesinger threw down a challenge to both his opponents by taking a question about morality and foreign policy as an opportunity to unload on the topic of illegal immigration. Stephanopoulos tried to steer him back to the subject matter of the question, but Schlesinger was not to be deterred from joining the chorus of Republicans in other states, including embattled Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, decrying Bush's policies and demanding that the border be closed.
Neither Lieberman nor Lamont took the bait, preferring to continue their own debate on Iraq.
The outcome of their fight is important nationally for the meaning that will be attached. While other states such as Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio and Virginia will decide whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate, this Connecticut race constitutes perhaps the nation's clearest test on the Iraq war.
Lieberman insists he is not wholly in the Bush camp but still argues that a victory in Iraq is possible and essential for American security -- whatever that may mean. "I'm not ready to give up on the Muslim world," he said, adding that a democratic Iraq could serve as a model for the Middle East. His winning and returning to the Senate and its Democratic caucus would slow, if not reverse, growing pressure from the Democrats for an early pullout of U.S. forces.
On the other hand, should Lamont repeat his primary win over Lieberman and capture the seat, it would add immeasurably to the momentum of the antiwar forces. He says that he is running in order to end the nightmare of "140,000 of our brave troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war."
Lamont himself is not a strong figure or a compelling politician; he looks like a juvenile in a drawing room comedy, and he is competitive mainly because he has sunk much of his fortune into this race. Lieberman is an exhausted veteran, barely able to conceal his irritation at having to fight for a seat he feels that he owns. When challenged on his record, he turns testy.
Their weaknesses were exposed by Schlesinger's good humor. But theirs is the fight that counts -- and it counts a lot.