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Sunday, July 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lieberman's primary concerns

The New York Times

ROCKY HILL, Conn. — Sen. Joe Lieberman commissioned a poll in January as he prepared for his fourth campaign for the Senate, and the results were sobering. Lieberman was tied against a hypothetical primary opponent, described only as a Democrat who was opposed to the Iraq war and was critical of Lieberman's ties with President Bush, an aide recounted.

That poll was one of several early warnings that emerged well before Lieberman found himself locked in a career-threatening battle with Ned Lamont, a Democratic primary challenger who is opposed to the war and is critical of Lieberman's ties to Bush. John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said he tried in April to persuade Lamont not to run and then warned Lieberman that he had trouble on his hands.

But Lieberman responded lethargically to those warnings until two months ago, according to interviews with associates and aides. They cited a variety of reasons: a misreading of the depth of anti-war sentiment among Connecticut Democrats, an exodus of experienced political advisers after Lieberman's failed presidential bid in 2004, a relatively green Senate campaign staff and the complacency that often settles around a politician after many years on the public stage.

The New York Times, in an editorial published today, endorsed Lamont over Lieberman, arguing that the senator had offered the nation a "warped version of bipartisanship" in his dealings with President Bush on national security.

Lieberman swept to his third term with ease six years ago and, as Al Gore's running mate, was nearly elected vice president. Now, the most recent public poll shows the primary race close, with Lamont at 51 percent and Lieberman at 47 percent — a dramatic decline from the senator's 14-point lead in June.

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, outpolled Lieberman among men, 56 percent to 44 percent. Fifty-one percent of women surveyed backed Lieberman, to 47 percent for Lamont, a statistically insignificant difference.

Lamont, a millionaire businessman whose political experience is limited to local office in Greenwich, Conn., 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," his campaign Web site promises.

Like other Democrats, Lieberman voted to authorize the Iraq war. Unlike others, he received a nationally televised kiss on the cheek from President Bush after the 2005 State of the Union address.

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A year and a half later, despite internal polls showing Lamont gaining ground, Lieberman was one of 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.

Voters also have cited Lieberman's vote for an administration-backed energy bill, his refusal to support a filibuster against Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and other issues.

The price of Lieberman's slow start was on display Friday, 11 days before the Aug. 8 primary. Lieberman, reshuffling his schedule after Democrats warned him that he was still not campaigning with enough urgency, set off on a 10-day bus tour across the state, with a sharp new message.

A half-dozen advisers from Lieberman's past campaigns turned up at his headquarters to provide support, responding to e-mails and other entreaties, including some from Lieberman's wife, Hadassah.

Christopher Dodd, the other Connecticut Democratic senator, stepped in roughly six weeks ago with his political advisers to bolster a Lieberman campaign staff that associates said Dodd viewed as too inexperienced for a campaign that had become so difficult.

Dodd recounted telling Lieberman that he needed to embrace his Democratic roots — explicitly and repeatedly. Friends described Lieberman as indignant at the challenge from liberals to his Democratic credentials.

"I said, as painful as it is, the first words out of your mouth and the last words out of your mouth every time you speak have to be 'I'm a Democrat,' " Dodd said Thursday. "You can say whatever you want after that."

Dodd sent Doug Sosnik, a White House political director under former President Clinton, to inspect the get-out-the-vote operation that Democrats now see as critical to Lieberman's success.

Sosnik, campaign officials said, sent back an SOS, and Democrat leaders dispatched Tom Lindenfeld, one of the party's premier organizers.

But some party officials worry it may be too late to organize a strong turnout operation.

Lieberman, in an interview aboard his campaign bus Friday, said he had long expected to face this kind of challenge, given his support for the Iraq war. He said the timing of his response had been appropriate because voters were just beginning to focus on the race.

"I want to assure you that I'm not surprised that I am in a fight for the Democratic nomination," he said. "I always expected that I would have a primary challenge based on Iraq. I was hoping that God would send me a poor challenger. I am being tested with a rich challenger."

He added: "Look, I could have told you this would be very close at the end. I know now it is very close."

Democrats who have been advising Lieberman said that, until the past few weeks, he resisted urgings that he change the way he talked about Iraq and play up other issues that appeal to liberals shaken by his support of the war.

They also pressed him to spend less time in Washington and more time campaigning in Connecticut. Olsen, the former state party chairman, said he thought Lieberman had been hurt, as many senators are, by frequently being out of the state, and that Lieberman had been hurt also by taking Saturdays off to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Howard Reiter, head of the political-science department at the University of Connecticut, said Lieberman had developed the complacency and hubris of many long-term incumbents.

"When you've got a major politician who has been very successful, and they get a lot of stroking, and someone they never heard of comes out of left field, they almost feel it's an affront they have to defend their office, and a lot of them are caught off guard," Reiter said.

Lieberman has received political advice from several senior Democrats, including Clinton and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. Schumer, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also has pressed some of his donors to help Lieberman, Lieberman's associates said.

Several associates, granted anonymity in exchange for providing details of private conversations with Lieberman, said they told him he was coming across as defensive and urged him to stop viewing this challenge as a fight with bloggers, who had led the charge against Lieberman. The associates told him to temper his Iraq position with criticism of how the war had been conducted.

One associate, accustomed to hearing Lieberman express support for the war, was stunned when Lieberman said recently that he was in fact unhappy with the way the administration was waging the war, the associate said.

Clinton had told him to acknowledge that Democrats should be able to hold contrary opinions on the war, Lieberman recounted. But Clinton also recommended that Lieberman aggressively try to refocus the debate on other topics.

A longtime associate spoke of sending an e-mail to Lieberman suggesting that he talk about domestic issues important to liberal Democrats: blocking oil drilling in Alaska, protecting affirmative action and preserving abortion rights.

That Lieberman is in his current predicament reflects to a great degree the extent to which support for the war in Iraq has become a toxic position for a Democrat. But it also shows the ability of liberal blogs, such as the Daily Kos, to stir turmoil in Democratic politics. (Whether they can do more than that will become clearer Aug. 8.)

But Lieberman's decline is about more than the war. It is the culmination of problems of a politician who, if well-liked, has been a step to the right of his party. Lieberman also is a senator who sometimes is perceived, fairly or not, as a creature more of Washington than of New Haven.

"How did it come to this?" said Jano Cabrera, a longtime adviser to Lieberman. "There's no good answer to the question. It's a political question to ask what Lieberman should have or could have done differently. But lost in all this is that Lieberman rarely thinks politically."

Lieberman is facing the prospect of a summer that may define his career as nothing else has, since he was elected to the state Senate in 1970. He has said he will run as an independent if he loses to Lamont, an announcement that one associate said only further hurt his standing with Democrats who already were questioning his loyalty.

Should Lieberman lose the primary, all indications are that most Democratic leaders will abandon him in the general-election race against Lamont and the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger.

Lieberman described the primary as a test of the moderate politics he and Clinton had embraced.

"In a primary like this, his legacy is on the line," Lieberman said. Since Clinton's visit Monday, the mood in Lieberman's campaign has gone from bleak to at least hopeful.

Still, the reminders of Lieberman's predicament were evident as he set out on what could be his final campaign.

"It's going to be OK," Frank Cirillo, the Meriden town Democratic chairman, said in whispered comfort to Lieberman when the senator stepped off his campaign bus. "Going to be OK."

Lieberman nodded in appreciation.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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