By DAVID ESPO
Anti-war Democrats bailed in droves. Teachers unions left over vouchers. Men are drawn to his challenger, and women aren’t all that crazy about the incumbent, either.
Once, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut seemed on the brink of the vice presidency, a principled moderate in a party that didn’t always warm to them. Now, hewing to his support for the war in Iraq, he confronts a political abyss, abandoned by all groups but the poorer, older and less educated Democrats in his state.
"The last three times I voted for him, but I will never vote for him again," Cheryl Curtiss of West Hartford, Conn., said recently of Lieberman as she waited for primary challenger Ned Lamont to speak at a campaign fundraiser.
"The war is the big piece," said Curtiss, 52. "I don’t think it can be minimized. All of our tax dollars are going there. It’s killing Americans. It’s killing Iraqis. We went there on lies."
Carolyn Gabel-Brett, in the same audience, said her disaffection with Lieberman began when he wouldn’t support a filibuster in the Senate to prevent Samuel Alito’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. The senator "does not support marriage equality," she said, adding she is a lesbian who married her partner in a state-sanctioned ceremony in neighboring Massachusetts.
"I would have liked Joe to be better on the issues because I like the guy," said state Rep. Christopher G. Donovan, House majority leader and the senior elected Democrat in Connecticut to support Lamont. "But you know, you only get to vote every six years."
Six years ago, Lieberman swept to his third term with ease and, as Al Gore’s running mate, was nearly elected vice president at the same time. Now, with the war increasingly unpopular, the most recent public poll shows the primary race very close, with Lamont at 51 percent and Lieberman at 47 percent — reflecting a narrow edge for Lamont and a dramatic decline from the senator’s 14-point lead in June.
Equally startling is the composition of the senator’s support. Doug Schwartz, survey director at Quinnipiac University, said Lieberman polled ahead of Lamont only among voters 65 and older, those with incomes of less than $30,000 a year, and those without a college degree.
Lamont, 52, ran ahead in the survey among voters in all other age and income groups, as well as among those with college degrees, Schwartz said. Lamont outpolled Lieberman among men, 56-44 percent. Fifty-one percent of the women surveyed backed Lieberman, to 47 percent for Lamont, a statistically insignificant difference.
One Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said internal polls showed similar results.
"I’m in a big fight here," Lieberman says routinely these days, and he’s counter-punching. "My opponent is peddling what I would call a big lie, and that is I’m not a real Democrat," he said recently.
Struggling to prevail, he called on Bill Clinton for help. The former president urged Democrats to put their opposition to the war aside when they vote. "Yeah, Joe Lieberman is a friend of mine. I love him and he’s in a tough race," Clinton said at a Connecticut rally on Monday.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington had also grown concerned, according to several strategists, and successfully prodded Lieberman to hire outside help with expertise in building a robust get-out-the-vote operation.
The late rush has been costly, and Clinton held an unannounced fundraiser for Lieberman before leaving the state.
"We have seen an outpouring of support and volunteers and resources in the last 10 days that gives us a lot of confidence going into the home stretch," said Sean Smith, Lieberman’s campaign manager.
If Lieberman’s fate is in doubt, supporters and lapsed supporters alike agree on the causes of his difficulties.
After nearly two decades without a significant home-state election challenge, he had virtually no political organization, according to numerous Democrats who support him. "He never had a reason to have one after" winning his seat in 1988, said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid public criticism.
"There’s a lot of anger" among voters, says Rep. John Larson (news, bio, voting record), who represents the Hartford area in Congress and supports Lieberman. "The galvanizing issue is the war."
Like other Democrats, Lieberman voted to authorize the war in Iraq. Unlike others, he got a nationally televised kiss on the cheek from President Bush after the 2005 State of the Union address.
A year and a half later, despite internal polls showing Lamont gaining ground, Lieberman was one of only six Senate Democrats to vote against a proposal that called for the beginning of a troop withdrawal by year’s end.
Other issues have cost him support, as well.
Two state teachers unions have endorsed Lamont over Lieberman, who has voiced support for experimental private school vouchers.
In interviews in recent days, voters also cited Lieberman’s vote for an administration-backed energy bill, his refusal to support a filibuster against Alito, and other issues.
His decision to seek two offices at once in 2000 was an irritant to some. Had the Gore ticket won, Connecticut’s GOP governor would have been able to appoint a Republican to fill Lieberman’s Senate seat.
Four years later, at a point in his own short-lived presidential campaign, Lieberman announced a symbolic switch in his residence — to New Hampshire, part of a futile attempt to win the first-in-the-nation primary.
Two years later, his support for the war guaranteed a challenge. Several names circulated before the emergence of Lamont, a millionaire businessman whose political experience is limited to local office in Greenwich, Conn.
Lamont quickly signed up top campaign aides with long experience in statewide grass-roots politics and liberal alliances, and gradually began tapping into the anger that had built up.
"Finally, a senator who will stand up to George Bush," promises his campaign Web site.
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