A combative debate between Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and challenger Ned Lamont has exposed Democratic Party fault lines on the Iraq war and set a harsh tone for next month’s primary showdown.

Lieberman, a three-term senator and vice presidential nominee in 2000, emphasized his experience and bluntly dismissed Lamont as a political novice whose call for a timeline on withdrawing troops from Iraq was “dumb.”

But Lamont, a millionaire businessman who has gained on Lieberman in the polls by portraying him as too supportive of President George W. Bush, attacked Lieberman as a knee-jerk cheerleader for the war.

Neither candidate delivered a knock-out blow in Thursday’s debate, analysts said, but the campaign’s focus on Iraq and Lieberman’s plan to run as an independent in November’s mid-term elections if he loses the August 8 primary have brought national attention to the contest.

“We’re getting support inside and outside of Connecticut. People are really paying attention to this race,” Lamont told Reuters on Friday. “It says a lot about the Democratic Party — what kind of party we want to be.”

Lamont’s criticism of Lieberman for his steadfast support of the war has made him a darling of left-wing Internet bloggers who have poured money and grass-roots muscle into his campaign.

His underdog bid in Democratic-leaning Connecticut has highlighted party tensions over the way forward in Iraq. But during Thursday’s debate Lieberman painted Lamont as a one-issue candidate with a shifting understanding of the war.


“Ned Lamont seems to be just running against me based on my stand on one issue: Iraq,” Lieberman said. “I know George Bush. I’ve worked against George Bush. I’ve even run against George Bush. But Ned, I’m not George Bush.”

The debate’s sometimes caustic exchanges mirrored the tough negative ads that both candidates are airing in the state, including one from Lamont combining images of Bush with audio from Lieberman that makes it seem like the president is speaking in Lieberman’s voice.

“They both held their own,” said Scott McLean, chairman of the political science department at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University. “Politically that’s a win for Lamont because Lamont just needs to show that he can stand there next to Lieberman toe-to-toe and trade shots and not commit a blunder.”

Lamont said he accomplished his goal during the debate. “I wanted them to know who I am and what I stand for,” he said.

Kenneth Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, said Lamont did a good job of bringing the issue back to Lieberman’s support for Bush’s war policies.

But he said Lieberman probably did a better job of appealing to the broad audience by talking about his independence and his accomplishments for the state.

“Both can claim victory for different reasons,” he said.

Analysts say Lieberman, who is more popular with Republicans and independents in Connecticut than with Democrats, would likely win the election as an independent even if he loses the primary.

© Reuters 2006