Monday, May 01, 2006

Antiwar Democrat Mounts a Major Challenge to Connecticut's 3-Term Senator
Tough Primary Race Confronts Lieberman
Antiwar Democrat Mounts a Major Challenge to Connecticut's 3-Term Senator
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- With his ruddy tan and dark gray suit, Ned Lamont is an antiwar liberal with a twist. Rather than targeting a Republican, the millionaire Greenwich businessman is challenging a fellow Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, one of President Bush's strongest supporters on the war in Iraq.

When Lamont announced his primary challenge in mid-March, he was viewed as the longest of long shots, a quixotic blueblood who was scratching a political itch. While many Connecticut Democrats had soured on Lieberman over his war stance, a poll showed that voters backed the three-term senator over Lamont by 5 to 1.

But in the space of six weeks, the newcomer has come on strong. Lamont raised $344,111 from 4,337 online donors and added $371,500 of his own money. He hired a staff of seasoned professionals and signed up several thousand volunteers. The 52-year-old cable television entrepreneur is blitzing the state, hitting as many as three events per evening.

Now, Lamont has turned the Democratic primary into a horse race, giving Lieberman his first real test since he joined the Senate 18 years ago, according to Democratic operatives and analysts in Connecticut. Party leaders were so rattled by the challenge that Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called Lamont asking him to back off.

"Some of the party brass said, 'Ned, don't jeopardize a safe seat,' " Lamont recently told students at Southern Connecticut State University, who gathered for a meet-and-greet session. "But you're not going to lose a senator. You're going to gain a Democrat."

The race is one of the few in the country in which a well-established incumbent is being threatened by a challenger from his own party. It suggests that no member of the House or Senate can take reelection for granted, given the voter disenchantment with Iraq and a Congress weakened by a corruption scandal and a meager record of accomplishments.

"I'm not surprised that there's a primary challenge," Lieberman conceded. According to a February poll by Quinnipiac University, 61 percent of state voters said invading Iraq was the wrong thing to do. But the former Democratic vice presidential nominee said he will not back down from his position.

"It's one that I believe is in the best interests of the country," Lieberman said recently, after a trip to the Middle East. If he has put his job at risk, he said, so be it. "We're having a good healthy debate up here," Lieberman said.

Lamont asserts -- usually to a sea of nodding heads -- that the United States should continue providing support to the Iraqis, but that "our front-line military troops should begin to be redeployed and our troops should start heading home."

Voters greet him with a mixture of curiosity and relief. "This is the first I've heard of him," said Kylie Welsh, a 27-year-old student who said she is tired of Lieberman's pro-war views. "I need to do some more research, but I think it's time for somebody new."

Despite Lamont's strong early push, Lieberman enjoys major advantages, including national name recognition and a formidable fundraising ability. Lieberman entered politics in 1970 and served as a state senator and attorney general before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1988. He was Al Gore's vice presidential running mate in 2000, and he waged an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination four years later.

With nearly $4.8 million of campaign funds in the bank as of March 31, Lieberman rolled out two statewide ads about a week ago, including one that directly confronts the war. "I already know that some of you feel passionately against my position on Iraq," Lieberman says in the ad. "I respect your views, and while we probably won't change each other's minds, I hope we can still have a dialogue and find common ground on all the issues where we do agree."

Mild-mannered and thoughtful, Lamont has a pedigree that blends old money with noblesse oblige. His great-grandfather Thomas W. Lamont, a chairman of J.P. Morgan & Co., commuted to Wall Street by yacht and helped to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. His family tree also includes Corliss Lamont, a socialist philosopher and civil libertarian, and an assortment of ministers and adventurers. Lamont served as a Greenwich selectman during the 1980s and lost a 1990 state Senate bid.

In his official biography, Lamont describes the lively, politically charged family dinner conversations that punctuated his childhood. "The underlying theme was public service," he recalled.

His main challenge is to get his name on the Aug. 8 Democratic ballot. Lamont has two ways of doing that: collect 15,000 voters' signatures or persuade 15 percent of the state's 1,608 Democratic delegates to support him at the party's May 20 nominating convention. Even Lieberman's camp has little doubt that Lamont will clear at least one of the hurdles.

Lieberman caused a stir recently by floating the possibility that he might enter the general-election race as an independent, were he to lose the Democratic primary. To do that, he would have to collect 7,500 signatures and file them by Aug. 9, a day after the primary. That means he would have to start the petition process even as he is campaigning for the Democratic nomination against Lamont.

But now Lieberman describes speculation of an independent candidacy as "greatly overblown." He said his focus is to win "a good solid victory at the convention."

Lamont said he supported Lieberman for years but that he grew irritated with the senator for supporting federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die Senate debate. "To me, that was symbolic of someone who was fundamentally off," Lamont explained.

Then came Lieberman's Nov. 29 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, titled "Our Troops Must Stay." It scolded Democrats for focusing "on how President Bush took America into the war in Iraq," instead of on how "we continue the progress in Iraq in the months and years ahead." The senator also took Democrats to task for saying the Bush administration has no strategy for victory in Iraq. "Yes, we do," Lieberman wrote.

The column was published shortly after Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), one of the Democrats' most respected voices on military issues, called the war "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion" and advocated that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq. Lamont applauded Murtha's pronouncement as an opening for Democrats to start publicly criticizing the war, and was angered by Lieberman for chastising his own party.

Lieberman's op-ed piece became the focus of a rallying cry for disillusioned liberals, and Lamont participated in conversations around the state about a possible primary challenge. So did Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the former GOP senator and governor who is now a staunch antiwar independent. Weicker had been weighing his own challenge to Lieberman but, for now, says, "I want to do everything I can to help Ned Lamont win."

Nancy DiNardo, Connecticut's Democratic Party chairman, worries that the Lieberman-Lamont battle will detract from the primary showdown between two Democrats vying to challenge the state's popular Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell. "I think we should focus on beating Republicans," DiNardo said.

For the next three weeks, Lamont and Lieberman will be concentrating on wooing state delegates. Lamont has been greeted warmly at Democratic town committee meetings.

John McNamara, who heads the New Britain Democratic Town Committee with its 31 delegates, is a big Lamont booster. Lieberman, he said, has "been a good senator for most of 18 years." But McNamara prefers Lamont's stance on the war and likes his economic development ideas for Connecticut.

Lieberman showed his political resilience in Manchester, where earlier this year the Democratic Town Committee passed a resolution criticizing his war views. About two weeks ago, a majority of members supported the senator in an informal vote, which tested where delegates stand before the convention. Chairman Ted Cummings urged the town's 27 delegates to split their votes. "We have our self-respect to come to grips with," Cummings said after the meeting, according to local news reports. "Joe Lieberman ought to have to work."