Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, took a hammering over his support for the Iraq war on Thursday in a debate with an antiwar rival whose fight for the Senate is seen as a battle for the heart of the Democratic Party.
Lieberman, who announced on Monday he would run for reelection as an independent if he loses his party’s August primary, appeared on the defensive for much of the debate against Democratic rival Ned Lamont, a self-financed neophyte.
“Senator Lieberman, if you won’t challenge President Bush and his failed agenda, I will,” said Lamont, who has been embraced by antiwar Democrats and leftist bloggers for criticizing Lieberman’s willingness to support President George W. Bush on the war and other issues.
“Senator Lieberman cheered the president every step of the way when he should have been asking the tough questions,” said Lamont, who made millions in the cable television business. “It’s time for us to change course. It’s time for us to start bringing our troops home.”
Lieberman, a veteran voice in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party and the only Jew ever nominated by a major party for president or vice president, defended his support for the war. Withdrawing now, he said, would create chaos.
“I believe it was the right thing for us to overthrow Saddam Hussein,” Lieberman said of the former Iraqi leader. “I’ve been critical of the things the administration did after that,” he added.
Lieberman attacked Lamont repeatedly as a political novice whose policies are inconsistent — from Iraq to free trade — and at one point dismissed as “dumb” his rival’s calls for a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
“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,” he said.
“Why don’t you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me.”
Internet bloggers nationwide have poured money and grass-roots muscle into Lamont’s campaign, and recent polls show Lamont closing the gap on the 18-year senator.
Lieberman’s legislative record — he has supported capital-gains tax cuts and criticized violent movies and music — places him toward the conservative end of the Democratic Party. But it is his support of the three-year-old Iraq war that has prompted the serious primary challenge.
In one Lamont commercial, Lieberman’s face dissolves into Bush’s as an announcer says: “Joe Lieberman may say he represents us but if it talks like George W. Bush and acts like George W. Bush, it’s certainly not a Connecticut Democrat.”
Lamont accused Lieberman in Thursday’s televised debate of “finding too much common ground with the president” on many issues.
Analysts say Lieberman stands a good chance of winning the election as an independent, drawing on conservative Democrats, independents and Republicans in the state who support him, even if he loses the August primary.
But Lamont’s surge of antiwar support highlights tension within the Democratic Party over how to handle Iraq — between moderates who support the war and powerful activist groups such as Moveon.org which back Lamont and staunchly oppose it.
© 2006 Reuters