Civil War in Connecticut

Hartford, Conn.--Ned Lamont, who is 52 and looks younger, is the reason Joseph Lieberman must be feeling all of his 64 years. Lamont wants Lieberman's U.S. Senate seat because he opposes Lieberman's support for the Iraq war. Both Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich cable-television executive, and Lieberman, who has been in politics since 1970 and is seeking a fourth Senate term, are Democrats. They will settle the party's nomination in an Aug. 8 primary that might leave much unsettled.

In 2004, for the first time in decades, Connecticut held an August primary. The turnout was only 19 percent. Those most likely to vote in vacation season are disproportionately the ideologically incandescent and seriously annoyed--not Lieberman supporters. Lamont won one third of the vote at the state party's convention in May. (Lamont says, "Joe was introduced by [Sen.] Chris Dodd. I was introduced by Annie Lamont," his wife, a venture capitalist.) He is challenging Lieberman to match his pledge to support the winner of the primary. Lieberman, just six years after being the Democrats' vice presidential nominee, is reserving the right to run in November as an independent. But he must submit 7,500 valid signatures the day after the primary, so he would have to collect them before Democrats make their decision, which would irritate some of them. Many already are irritable: A poll shows Lieberman with a slim 46-40 lead.

Lamont is bemused by Lieberman's charge that he, Lamont, is both too conservative (because he cooperated with Republicans in municipal government in Greenwich) and a creature of radical bloggers, who are indeed promoting him. Bloggers have helped Lamont find more than 9,000 contributors to far. He says that beats traditional fund-raising because the idea of asking people to "pay $2,000 to hear Lamont vent, that's not a hot seller."

Although Connecticut was so Republican it was one of only six states to vote for Hoover in 1932, today it is indigo blue, so either Lieberman or Lamont is apt to be elected. But the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, thinks that if Lieberman wins the Democratic nomination, many antiwar Democrats will stay home in November or vote for the Green Party candidate. Lamont serenely says that Lieberman's running as an independent would "split the Republican vote." But perhaps Lieberman would draw both pro-war Republicans and Democrats who have been voting for him since he ran for state senator in 1970.

Jim Dean, brother of Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, runs Democracy for America, a residue of his brother's 2004 campaign. Jim is circulating a petition demanding that Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat who is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, pledge to support the winner of the primary. Schumer, who hates primaries, will not pledge. Schumer called Lamont shortly after Schumer forced an antiwar challenger out of a Senate primary in Ohio. Lamont says, "I didn't get back to him. I didn't think he was calling to wish me success."

Two Connecticut Republicans in danger of losing their seats in Congress, Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson, could de-emphasize their injurious party identification by endorsing a Lieberman independent bid. A third Republican, Chris Shays, endorsed Lieberman in March. Other GOP congressional candidates here are trying to force their opponents to choose between what they call the Lieberman "stay the course" and the Lamont "cut and run" positions on the war.

Lamont says that because his position is now well known, "I don't get many questions on Iraq anymore." He speaks more about other things, such as "creeping federal intrusion into our private lives," by which he means NSA surveillance, South Dakota's virtual ban on abortions and Lieberman's support of congressional intervention in the end-of-life decision regarding Terri Schiavo.

But this dust-up among Democrats is about the war, and Connecticut's political market is working. Lamont, who says a deadline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would "change the dynamic of things," is serving an unmet demand from many Democrats. He says his position is "Murtha's, probably." (Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania is for prompt withdrawal from Iraq.) Lamont says the administration's position--America will stand down as Iraqi forces stand up--is backward: "They won't stand up until we stand down."

Lieberman, whose 1988 victory over Sen. Lowell Weicker was aided by a Connecticut voter named William F. Buckley, last October attended the 50th-anniversary dinner of Buckley's National Review. Lieberman is among the last of the Jacksonians, those Democrats who, like the late Washington Sen. Scoop Jackson, support both domestic liberalism and a muscular foreign policy. Although Iraq is a weight in the Republicans' saddles this year, it also is bedeviling Democrats.