Sunday, July 16, 2006

Lieberman Hopes His Fate Isn’t Sealed With a Kiss

The New York Times
Lieberman Hopes His Fate Isn’t Sealed With a Kiss

WASHINGTON, July 15 — On his increasingly difficult path to re-election, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman keeps getting kissed. And not lovingly.

Kisses mock Mr. Lieberman, the incumbent Democrat, all over Connecticut — on signs, on buttons, even on giant parade floats. They commemorate the one President Bush appeared to plant on his cheek after last year’s State of the Union address, a symbol, in the eyes of Mr. Lieberman’s liberal critics, of an unforgivable alliance in support of the Iraq war.

“It’s a ‘Godfather’ kiss — one of those kisses that says, ‘I own you,’ ” said Edward Anderson, a supporter of Mr. Lieberman’s Democratic primary opponent, Ned Lamont, who was distributing “kiss” buttons outside a Lieberman campaign event in Stamford, Conn., on Monday.

In an interview in his Senate office, Mr. Lieberman said he recalled only a hug, not a kiss, but acknowledged, “There has been some doubt, based on the postgame films.” Asked if there had been any subsequent kisses with the president, he said, “None that I’m prepared to talk about,” and chuckled.

Despite his amused disposition, these are down days for Mr. Lieberman, the onetime Democratic nominee for vice president who, six years later, finds himself fighting to save his career amid a strenuous effort by antiwar activists in his own party to dislodge him. Friends say his predicament has left Mr. Lieberman nervous, dispirited and angry, a portrait of a politician stunned to face opponents as passionate in their loathing of his principles as he is proud of them.

He is in his 18th year in the Senate, where he has prided himself as being moderate, collegial and willing to work with Republicans. He has built the kind of seniority that often leads lawmakers to consider themselves invulnerable.

Yet he suddenly finds himself in a nasty tangle, not with the Republicans who held little back in their effort to thwart his run for vice president, but with a wing of his own party that has adopted a bloody-knuckle approach to politics and wants to finish him off in Connecticut’s primary on Aug. 8.

Mr. Lieberman’s physical posture is more hunched than usual these days, his normally deep and lulling cadences more clipped. “I should probably cut off this line of questioning,” he said in a discussion relating to his recent announcement that he would run as an independent if he did not get the Democratic nomination. “I’m focused on the primary.”

Mr. Lamont and Mr. Lieberman’s critics on the left say he is out of touch with his party, especially but not solely on Iraq, and cannot be trusted to advance what they say are core progressive values.

“Many Democratic activists and bloggers have concluded that some of the party’s most visible scars are self-inflicted,” said Ari Melber, a former staff member for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign who writes regularly for The Huffington Post, a Web site with political commentary. “When prominent Democrats regularly capitulate to Republicans, they undermine the rationale for an opposition party. Lieberman is seen as the serial offender.”

The Lieberman campaign contends that Mr. Lamont has systematically distorted its record and that in fact, Mr. Lieberman has voted with Senate Democrats and against President Bush on the vast majority of issues since 2000. The campaign also charges that during Mr. Lamont’s days as an elected official in his hometown, Greenwich, he usually voted in accordance with local Republicans.

Mr. Lieberman, who seemed slow to recognize the seriousness of Mr. Lamont’s challenge, also appears taken aback by the ferocity of the onslaught, particularly from liberal blogs. To Mr. Lieberman’s camp, the bloggers embody what his longtime friend Lanny Davis calls “the demonizing, hating, virulent, character-assassinating left of the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Lieberman began, “Some of the vituperations, some of the extremity of the language and anger,” before his voice trailed off. He paused for a second and started again: “They’re describing a person who is not me.” Colleagues have approached him on the Senate floor to console him, asking how he is holding up, as if he is sick or experiencing some trauma.

Mr. Lieberman’s allies discuss him these days with a tinge of sadness, as if mourning a kindly gentleman who has wandered into a bad neighborhood. “He’s being subjected to the hate machine like Bill Clinton and George Bush have,” said Mr. Davis, a former special counsel to Mr. Clinton. “Joe Lieberman has never been subjected to this before.”

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and one of Mr. Lieberman’s closest friends in the Senate, called him “one of the most decent men I have ever known” and simply shook his head when asked about his friend’s situation. “I hesitate to say anything nice about him, for fear that it would be used against him,” Mr. McCain said. “And that’s a terrible commentary on the state of politics and the political climate today.”

In his Senate career, Mr. Lieberman has been a creature of the political center, ill suited to the partisan passions that have come to pervade primary campaigns. He was far more effective as a general election candidate for vice president in 2000 than he was in the campaign he waged for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, in which he did not come close to winning any primaries.

“The antis tend to come out more in the primaries,” Mr. Lieberman said. “There’s a culture of partisan poison in both parties. It hurts. And it’s part of what’s being reflected in this primary.”

Mr. Lieberman said he was not surprised that he had a primary challenge, given his support for the war in Iraq and the fervor against it among Democrats. He said he did not mind being booed, as he was at a Fourth of July parade in Willimantic, Conn., where Lamont supporters built a float with a papier-mâché rendering of Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Bush’s kiss.

But the senator said he was upset by the fever pitch of invective that he said the campaign against him had featured. In that same parade, Mr. Lieberman was heckled as a “warmonger,” a “Bush lover” and a “turncoat,” among other things.

Mr. Lieberman also worries about how seemingly effective the assaults have been. His once-comfortable lead over Mr. Lamont has shrunk considerably, to a point where he has felt it necessary to hedge his bets with his fallback independent candidacy.

Like the candidate himself, Mr. Lieberman’s campaign in Connecticut gives the impression of being caught off-guard, a bit shell-shocked and on uncertain footing. Someone on his campaign staff decided that he should campaign at the Tigin Irish Pub in Stamford on Monday morning — not exactly prime flesh-pressing hours (except on St. Patrick’s Day, which Monday was not). He was joined by a few supporters, a throng of news media people and virtually no bar patrons.

Mr. Lieberman was scheduled to attend a Puerto Rican festival in Bridgeport last Sunday, but his campaign canceled his appearance upon hearing a report of a stabbing there that afternoon. The festival went on, drawing over a thousand people (including a Lamont supporter holding a “Kiss this, Senator Lieberman” sign). It was Mr. Lieberman’s only scheduled campaign appearance on one of the few Sundays left before the primary. Mr. Lieberman said he made an impromptu trip to an Italian neighborhood in Bridgeport instead, after Italy’s soccer team won the World Cup.

“Don’t make too much of it,” Mr. Lieberman said of the decision to skip the Puerto Rican festival, which he said he regretted in retrospect. “Or blame it on my staff.”

Staff work is vital in a primary, particularly one to be held in August, when many voters will be away and turnout is expected to be low. Mr. Lamont’s supporters are passionate and motivated to begin with — and perhaps less likely to need a get-out-the-vote operation to spur them to the polls. Mr. Lieberman engenders more admiration than fervor among his supporters.

He has also encountered a peculiar brand of stigma from his Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

Several of them say they will support their “good friend” in the primary. But only a smattering say they will support Mr. Lieberman no matter what happens Aug. 8. The rest have either avoided the question (“You never saw senators run for the elevators so fast,” David Lightman of The Hartford Courant said on “Reliable Sources” on CNN) or vowed to support the primary winner, even if it is Mr. Lamont, whom most of them have never met.

“I’m going to wait and see what happens in the primary so hopefully I won’t have to make this decision,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, voicing a typical response.

Former Vice President Al Gore has remained neutral in the primary — not surprising, given his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, his surprise endorsement of Howard Dean for the Democratic nomination in 2004 and the general public chill that has surrounded the former running mates since their buddy days in 2000.

Mr. Gore declined to comment for this article. Privately, other leading Democrats have been quick to catalog what they consider to be Mr. Lieberman’s slights to the party over the years — including his mild-mannered performance in his vice-presidential debate against Dick Cheney in 2000; his rejection of a filibuster that would have opposed the nomination of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court; and his on-air chumminess with Sean Hannity, the conservative co-host of “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News. His willingness to run for re-election as an independent is merely the latest offense.

Indeed, there is an unmistakable sense of satisfaction, if not glee, over Mr. Lieberman’s difficulties in the primary, even among people who consider themselves friends.

“This is just another of a long list of things I’ve seen that show you have very few friends” in Washington, Mr. McCain said. “So long as you understand that, you can exist happily here. But you shouldn’t delude yourself into thinking people are going to stand by you instead of acting in their self-interests.”

People close to Mr. Lieberman say he has been wounded by the conditional devotion he has received from most of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Mr. Lieberman says this is not true, that he is not bothered. “Probably some of my fellow senators are more uncomfortable about this than I am,” he said. “Because truly, I haven’t asked a single one of them for a commitment beyond the primary.”

Even so, Senate Democrats have not exactly closed ranks around their colleague, either. It was impossible to watch Mr. Lieberman campaign at the Stamford pub on Monday and not consider his circumstances. A Democratic Senate colleague, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, was supposed to join him but did not make his train up from Delaware, so Mr. Lieberman was left to stump for himself.

“Irish-Americans have been great supporters of mine,” Mr. Lieberman said in remarks to the small crowd, between prelunch sips of Guinness. He seemed, at the moment, every bit in his ethnic political element — a backslapping, blog-free retail setting characteristic of the Democratic Party he grew up in.

“The Irish tend not to be fair-weather friends,” Mr. Lieberman said. “They’re with you all the way.”