Democrats and Defense
The Lieberman race is forcing a referendum on national security that party leaders don't want
STAMFORD, CONN.--Even Joe Lieberman's most loyal supporters disagree with the senator's unflagging support for the war in Iraq. But they're trying to see past it and help the embattled Connecticut Democrat in what he calls the "fight of my political life"--just to get his party's nomination to run for a fourth term. "We can choose to focus on the times we disagree, but we're just not doing that," says California Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the Democrats' most outspoken Iraq war critics, before stepping into a Lieberman fundraiser here last week. "Life is about difference." The fundraiser, organized by a group called Lieberwomen, is filled with antiwar Lieberman backers. "We can disagree agreeably," says Patricia Russo, cochair of Lieberwomen, "without bringing down the whole Democratic Party."
Lieberman's challenger in Connecticut's Democratic primary, the fiercely antiwar Ned Lamont, says he's just trying to bring down one U.S. senator. "It's one thing to say we should have invaded Iraq," Lamont says. "But [Lieberman] goes out of his way to chastise those who think it's time to start bringing troops home." But Lamont, a Greenwich blueblood with a hefty bank account, also knows he's charging at the Democratic establishment, which discouraged him from running and is staking out a more nuanced line on Iraq. "August 9th is going to be a whole new day," he says of next week's primary, picking at a salad inside Fairfield's Jewish Home for the Elderly. "Democrats win when we're bold and clear. We're going to take away ... the ambiguity."
That's just what many in the national Democratic Party are afraid of. "The sense of division in itself presents a perception of weakness," says a top Democratic strategist in Washington about a possible Lamont victory. "People may say, 'You're right; we should withdraw from Iraq,' but the larger issue is they think we're squishy on national security." Indeed, the Lieberman-Lamont primary has shaped up as a head-on collision between the Democrats' staunchly antiwar base and party leaders worried about the security and political implications of an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq, not only in the fall but also in 2008. Says pollster John Zogby: "The Connecticut race is for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party."
Lamont's campaign was initially considered a long shot. A Quinnipiac University poll released two months after he launched his campaign in March had him trailing Lieberman by 46 points. But by pouring $3 million of his own money into the race--Lamont made a fortune by starting a telecommunications company in the 1980s--becoming the darling of left-wing blogs like "Daily Kos," and hitting the campaign trail so hard that he has shed 10 pounds, Lamont made himself a viable alternative to Lieberman. Two late-July polls had him either tied with or slightly ahead of the senator.
No Joe-mentum. But most of Lamont's popularity is born of Connecticut Democrats' disenchantment with Lieberman, and over no issue more than Iraq. Even allies say Lieberman has gone out of his way to defend President Bush on the issue. "I am disappointed by Democrats who are more focused on how President Bush took America into the war in Iraq," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last fall, "... than they are concerned about how we continue the progress in Iraq in the months and years ahead." A 2005 photo in which Bush appears to kiss Lieberman on the cheek adorns buttons distributed by Lamont supporters outside Lieberman events. "If he could just face up to the fact that Iraq was a mistake, I might forgive him," says Ann Traynor, 42, a former Lieberman backer who attended a Lamont rally last week in Hartford's Elizabeth Park. Jan Larkin, 61, a retired project analyst and war opponent, changed from independent to Democrat so she could back Lamont in the primary. "I would have voted for the janitor," she says, "if he was opposing Lieberman."