After years of ardent support for the Iraq war, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman could become that conflict’s first big political casualty in a Democratic primary race fueled by rising anti-war anger.
Lieberman, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, faces a growing challenge from a political neophyte who has rallied Democrats angered by the senator’s enthusiastic backing of the war and willingness to support Republican President George W. Bush on other issues.
Challenger Ned Lamont’s underdog bid to unseat Lieberman in Democratic-leaning Connecticut could offer an early gauge of the intensity of anti-war sentiment ahead of November’s midterm elections, along with a measure of the influence of the Internet activists and bloggers who have flocked to his cause.
“Senator Lieberman has cheered on the president every step of the way when it comes to the invasion of Iraq, and he is too quick to compromise on core Democratic principles,” Lamont, a businessman and former Greenwich town selectman, told Reuters.
“He’s wrong on the big issues of the day and he is not challenging the Bush administration,” added Lamont, who qualified for the August 8 primary ballot by winning 33 percent of the delegates at the state party convention last month.
Lieberman, who has not faced a tough re-election race since entering the U.S. Senate 18 years ago, has been stirred by the challenge, stepping up his state schedule and launching a television ad attacking Lamont for votes he cast in Greenwich.
Lieberman acknowledges his support for the war runs counter to sentiment in Connecticut, where a recent poll found more than 60 percent of voters believe the war is wrong. But he also points to a poll showing just 15 percent of state voters would support a candidate based solely on his position on Iraq.
“On the war, I’ve done what I thought was right for my country. I obviously haven’t done it for political reasons,” Lieberman told Reuters.
Calling himself a “proud Democrat,” he said, “There is a lot of opposition to the war here but a lot of people I talk to understand that now that we’re there we have to end it in a way that doesn’t leave a disaster behind.”
Lieberman has frustrated Democrats for years on issues beyond Iraq, from his early condemnation of President Bill Clinton during the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal to his recent refusal to support a filibuster against conservative Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.
His 2004 presidential candidacy fell flat and criticism from the left has intensified, particularly after he published a Wall Street Journal article last year headlined “Our Troops Must Stay” that chided Democrats for criticizing Bush on the war.
“There is a very sizable contingent of liberal Democrats in this state who want a change,” said Gary Rose, a political analyst at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Anything could happen in this primary. Turnout will be low.”
Lamont, whose last bid for office was an unsuccessful 1990 run for the state Senate, condemns Lieberman as a Bush “lapdog” whose conservative views provide political aid to the president.
Lamont supports an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from combat zones and a quick handover of security duties to Iraqis, although troops would remain there in humanitarian and support roles.
His message has made him a darling of Internet bloggers who have funneled money and grassroots muscle to his campaign.
During a recent visit to a Meriden, Connecticut, diner, Lieberman stuck to his message on Iraq even when a local Democrat said he was concerned about the war.
“We can’t let the enemy know we’re going to leave the next day, and we can’t let our allies think we’re going to be there forever,” Lieberman told Joseph Marquis, an auto shop worker.
Marquis said later he voted for Lieberman in the past but was unsure this year. “I like him, but this war thing has thrown me off. I don’t know which way to go now.”
But Frank Griffin, a retired Meriden worker, told Lieberman to stay the course. “I like that he sticks to his guns and doesn’t back down,” Griffin said.
Lieberman has refused to rule out an independent bid if he loses the primary, giving rise to Democratic fears he could split their vote and give the seat to Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger, a state legislator.
© Reuters 2006