By DAVID ESPO
Bill Clinton, campaigning to save an old friend from defeat, appealed to Connecticut Democrats Monday to put aside their opposition to the war in Iraq and send embattled Sen. Joseph Lieberman on his way to a new term in office.
But "the real issue is, whether you were for it or against it, what are we going to do now. And let me tell you something, no Democrat is responsible for the mistakes that have been made since the fall of Saddam Hussein that have brought us to this point."
In a 20-minute speech to a capacity crowd in an ornate theater, Clinton went easy on Ned Lamont, whose challenge gained traction when he accused Lieberman of being too close to Bush on the war and other issues.
"He seems like a perfectly nice man. He’s got every right to run and he’s waged a vigorous campaign," the former president said.
By contrast, he lavished praise on Lieberman, a third-term lawmaker whose once formidable lead in the polls has vanished.
Clinton said Lieberman has long been a loyal Democratic vote on issues as diverse as organized labor and the environment.
Clinton was greeted with cheers louder than Lieberman received from the audience, and the words "Four More Years" were clearly audible in the crowd.
Lieberman wasn’t nearly as deferential to Lamont as Clinton was. "My opponent is peddling what I would call a big lie, and that is I’m not a real Democrat," he said.
And he proudly recalled that Clinton first volunteered to help him in 1970, when he was running for the state legislature in his first campaign.
"I’m in a big fight here," he said more than once during the day, and the polls, the recent addition of campaign staff and the decision to seek help from Clinton were all evidence of that.
The former president wasn’t the only nationally known Democrat campaigning for Lieberman as the lawmaker sought to rebuild support among Democrats who long supported him.
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, an ardent critic of the war, praised Lieberman for his stand on other issues. "If you want to meet a leader on the environment, a leader on all the difficult choice issues, you got one here," she said at a campaign stop at a candy store.
Even then, Lieberman was looking forward to Clinton’s visit.
"You know, I’m in a big fight here, and I understand that … and as our mutual friend who’s coming in later today, President Clinton, always reminds us, every campaign is about the future," he said.
The most recent public poll rated the race a tossup with the wealthy Lamont, whose Web site boasts that he will give Connecticut, "finally, a senator who will stand up to George Bush."
At an appearance shortly after Clinton spoke, Lamont emphasized the war and his determination to bring it to a close. "Staying the course is not a winning strategy in Iraq," he said, adding that the United States is not going to be able to bring about "democracy at the barrel of a gun."
Lamont also picked up some endorsements of his own during the day. His office said he had gained the support of Carl S. Feen, the finance chair of Lieberman’s first campaign and a former Clinton appointee.
Irving Stolberg, two-term speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives in the 1980s, also swung behind Lamont, a Greenwich, Conn., businessman who made millions in telecommunications. His political experience is limited to two years as a Greenwich selectman from 1987-89 and six years on the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation from 1989-95.
Lieberman has filed petitions to run as an independent if he loses the Aug. 8 primary to Lamont, although it seems likely he would come under heavy pressure from party leaders to reconsider his plans.
Clinton has said he will support the winner of the primary in the fall campaign, and it would be highly unusual if the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee didn’t follow precedent and do the same.
There was irony in Lieberman’s decision to call on Clinton.
Once, the senator gained national prominence for criticizing the president on the Senate floor over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
That led to Lieberman’s selection as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in 2000.
Lieberman ran for president four years later, and defended his decision to work across party lines in the Senate. He fared poorly in the early nominating contests and dropped out of the race.
Now, his horizon has shrunk to his home state, and his votes in support of the Iraq war have helped energize Lamont and the rank-and-file Democrats eager for a change.
Democratic strategists have said Lieberman awoke belatedly to the severity of the challenge, and in recent weeks, he has tried to regain the offensive.
"I know George Bush. I’ve worked against George Bush. I’ve even run against George Bush. But Ned, I’m not George Bush," Lieberman said recently during the only debate of their campaign.
"So why don’t you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me and the facts of my record," Lieberman told Lamont.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press