War Stance Could Mean a Primary Battle for Lieberman

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who rose to national prominence as the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, appears likely to face a serious primary challenge this year that could measure the depth of his party’s discontent over the Iraq war.

Ned Lamont, a businessman and war critic, last week began publicly seeking support for a run against Lieberman in the state’s August nominating contest. Lamont is attracting interest largely because of Democratic grumbling -- in Connecticut and nationally -- about Lieberman’s unflinching support of President Bush’s policies in Iraq.

“The indications I have is that a primary would be good for the party and very doable,” said Lamont, 52, who founded a cable television company.


Lieberman, 63, said he was prepared for a fight. “I am totally energized by this,” he said. “I’m proud of my record and I’m ready to defend it.”

Although Lieberman would enjoy significant advantages in fundraising, organization and name identification in a primary, a recent poll has encouraged his critics. When Connecticut Democrats were asked whether they wanted the senator nominated for a fourth term, 52% said yes and 39% said they would prefer a new candidate -- a weak showing for an incumbent.

“There’s no doubt these numbers point the way for a protest candidate,” said Scott L. McLean, head of the political science department at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn., which conducted the survey.

Lieberman is not the only centrist senator to confront intraparty discontent.

Next door in Rhode Island, moderate Republican Lincoln Chafee is battling a stiff primary challenge from Stephen Laffey, the conservative mayor of Cranston. In 2004, moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) narrowly survived a primary with then-Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, whose campaign was largely underwritten by the Club for Growth. The well-funded conservative group is now backing Laffey.

The backdrop for these primaries is an atmosphere of intensifying polarization on Capitol Hill that has sparked rebellions against legislators on both sides of the aisle who break from dominant party positions.

Democratic centrists argue that this impulse is especially dangerous for their party when it needs to expand its coalition to dislodge the ruling GOP.


If Lieberman lost his primary race, “it would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party ... because it would send a message nationally that centrists are unwelcome,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

But for many in a new generation of liberal activists, a viable primary opponent for Lieberman could provide an opportunity to show that they can threaten Democrats they consider too close to Bush with more tangible consequences than angry e-mails or vitriolic blog postings.

In interviews, leaders of Democracy for America -- the group that emerged from the 2004 presidential campaign of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean -- and the political action committee associated with encouraged a challenge to Lieberman, although both stopped short of endorsing Lamont. Neither group has met with him yet.

“We are not interested in playing games, but we do think Sen. Lieberman has abandoned his constituents, especially on Iraq, and there ought to be a cost to that,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of the MoveOn PAC.

Leslie O’Brien, the state Democratic Party’s executive director, said she expected the vast majority of party officials to rally around Lieberman, even though many disagreed with him on Iraq.

John Olsen, president of the state AFL-CIO, was more cautious in predicting whether his group would endorse Lieberman in a primary. Many in organized labor “are disappointed in the senator” over his position on the war, which means Lieberman will need to emphasize positions on issues such as education and healthcare that appeal to labor families, Olsen said.


Lieberman said that was exactly what he planned to do.

“I am going to ask people to take a look at my overall record on matters other than the war,” he said. “In some sense, I am saying to people, ‘Don’t fall into the trap that we always accuse the Republicans of falling into: applying a litmus test’ ” to candidates.

Lieberman fits squarely within the Democratic mainstream on most issues. But it has been his fervent defense of the Iraq war that has gained him the spotlight in recent months -- and put him in a potentially perilous political position.

He especially angered party activists, and some Senate Democrats, when he assailed war critics in December, saying, “It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge ... that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.”

In the recent poll in Connecticut, Lieberman’s approval ratings among Republicans and independents were higher than the 55% he earned from Democrats.

Lamont said Lieberman’s staunch defense of Bush and his cautions about undercutting the president’s credibility prompted him to encourage other potential candidates to challenge the incumbent -- including Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Connecticut’s former governor and a onetime Republican senator from the state. But Lamont said Weicker, whom Lieberman ousted from the Senate in 1988, instead encouraged him to run.

Weicker, 74, has since said that if Lamont or another serious opponent didn’t challenge Lieberman in the primary, he would consider opposing him as an independent in the general election.


Although Lamont is articulate and comfortable when discussing political issues, his electoral experience is limited: He served as a selectman in Greenwich, Conn., and later ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat. When Weicker was governor, he appointed him as chairman of the State Investment Advisory Council, which oversees Connecticut’s pension fund investments.

Campaigning is “a little out of my element,” Lamont acknowledged after making his first appearance before potential supporters in Hartford last week.

Lamont said that if he took on Lieberman, he would provide enough of his own money to give the campaign “a credible start,” but would not self-finance the entire effort. Nor does he appear inclined to conduct a campaign that leans decisively to the left.

As a business executive, he said, he will argue “that government has to be as entrepreneurial as the private sector.”

And while calling the Iraq war “an enormous foreign-policy blunder,” he has not endorsed the widespread liberal demand for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Instead, he said the U.S. should move its troops “out of harm’s way” and demand that Iraqi forces assume the lead role in combating the insurgency.

The possibility of a bruising Democratic primary, or an independent bid by Weicker, is raising GOP interest in a race the party had virtually abandoned.


No Republican has entered the contest. But George D. Gallo, state GOP chairman, said: “I know if Lieberman has a credible Democratic primary opponent, or Lowell Weicker decides to throw his hat in the ring, we will have a credible candidate in the race ... someone who will be known and who will be well-financed.”