Embattled Lieberman Asserts Himself as a “Real Democrat”

Times Staff Writer

Before a roaring crowd in Waterbury’s Palace Theater, Bill Clinton slung a companionable arm over Sen. Joe Lieberman’s shoulder. He made a series of self-effacing jokes -- “the obligatory hillbilly poormouth,” he explained -- which whipped up the audience even more. And then he covered Lieberman with the political equivalent of fairy dust.

In a 23-minute speech, the former president made the case that Democrats should not abandon their leaders over the war issue. Lieberman’s unyielding support for the war in Iraq has turned Connecticut’s Aug. 8 primary into a startlingly fierce contest, pitting a three- term U.S. senator and vice presidential nominee against a political neophyte, Ned Lamont, who advocates setting a deadline to withdraw troops.

Monday’s event aimed to reverse that surge with a show of Democratic unity. Lamont, Lieberman said, “is spreading a big lie that I’m not a real Democrat.” Anyone still uncertain, he said, should “ask that other fellow over there -- the big guy from Arkansas. He’s known me since my first race for public office 36 years ago.”

After praising Lieberman’s record on education and healthcare, Clinton addressed what he called “the pink elephant in the living room.”


“No Democrat is responsible for the mistakes that have been made since the fall of Saddam Hussein,” he said. “We’re not responsible for the fact that that a lot of those kids still don’t have body armor ... and there’s billions of dollars that have been given out in no-bid contracts and millions that are just missing. We’re not responsible for that. So I say, we can fight later in the future about what do we do next, and honorable people can disagree.”

Whether endorsements by Democratic leaders can save Lieberman’s campaign remains to be seen. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that support for Lamont has surged over the past month, and he now holds a 51%-to-47% lead over Lieberman among Democratic voters.

With two weeks left until the primary, the contest has transformed from “what looked like a blowout” early in the race to a white-knuckle finish, said Douglas Schwartz, Quinnipiac University poll director.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Lieberman’s fight for survival may presage trouble for other Democrats who voted to authorize force in Iraq or who oppose a deadline for troop withdrawal -- among them Clinton’s wife, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. At Monday’s event, Lieberman supporters said they had been taken aback by the ferocious campaign waged by anti-war Democrats.

But even Lieberman’s fans confessed splits over the war. While Tom Stough is convinced by Lieberman’s record on labor, his wife, Sandy, said she may vote for Lamont. While Jane Shernow said she will stand by Lieberman -- “he’s an institution,” she said -- her daughter Hillary Schepps, 18, plans to vote for Lamont.

“I’m very against the war,” said Schepps, who is headed to Yale in the fall.

Even the most conflicted said Clinton’s endorsement made a difference. Chelsea Murray, 18, opposes the war, but called Clinton “her favorite American” and was eager to hear him. As the crowd thinned out after Clinton’s speech, John Stanford, 50, just stood in front of his seat, dazzled.

“That man is great,” he said. “He’s amazing. I’m telling you, if it wasn’t for term limits, this guy would’ve been president forever. It’s unbelievable. He’s just so talented. If Joe would be able to talk half as good as him,” he began, but trailed off before finishing the sentence. “He’s just got it. He’s got what it takes.”

Clinton’s endorsement marks another twist in the long and sometimes strained friendship between the two men, who first met in 1970 when Clinton, a law student at Yale, volunteered to work for Lieberman’s state senate campaign.

Clinton agreed to endorse Lieberman during the first week of July, said Lieberman’s campaign manager, Sean Smith.

That week, Lieberman announced that he would run as an independent if Democrats didn’t select him in the Aug. 8 primary.

“I am a loyal Democrat,” he said. “But I have a loyalty higher than that to any party. That’s to my state and my country.”

Lieberman has strong support from Republican and independent voters, and the Quinnipiac poll shows that he could win the general election if he ran as an independent, winning 51% to Lamont’s 27%. The Republican challenger, Alan Schlesinger, would win only 9% of votes in that case, according to the poll.

The day after Lieberman made that announcement, Sen. Hillary Clinton said that despite her 30-year friendship with Lieberman, she would support Lamont if he won the primary.

Clinton and Lieberman both advanced as Democratic centrists, and both served as chairmen of the Democratic Leadership Council, a nonprofit established by party moderates in 1985. Lieberman was the first non-Southern U.S. senator to endorse Clinton in 1992.

Six years later, Lieberman had become Clinton’s most prominent Democratic critic. He delivered a scathing rebuke of Clinton in the thick of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

At Monday’s event, both men lingered on the theme of mutual admiration. Lieberman said Clinton “left America where it hasn’t been since -- in surplus -- and he left America somewhere else we haven’t been since then -- admired and even liked throughout the world.”

Clinton said he differed with Lieberman on some matters -- specifically the war in Iraq.

“You know what? We Democrats have a bad habit. We’re prone to think. And when people are thinking, they sometimes disagree. It’s a funny thing. And you know, the founding fathers thought it was a pretty good idea,” he said.