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Conn. Senate: Lieberman's Primary Fight Getting More Interesting

Heading into last weekend's Democratic Party convention in Connecticut, there was little doubt among political insiders that wealthy businessman Ned Lamont would qualify for the Aug. 8 primary ballot to take on Sen. Joe Lieberman (D). But the challenger's strong showing shocked many within the political establishment.

Ned Lamont
Can businessman Ned Lamont tap into an anti-incumbent mood to oust his party's 2000 vice presidential nominee from the Senate? (AP)

Lamont received 33 percent of the vote from the gathered delegates, far more than the 15 percent he needed to qualify for the August primary ballot. Lieberman took well more than the 50 percent required to win the formal endorsement of the party, but his victory was overshadowed by Lamont's performance.

Liz Dupont-Diehl, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said her candidate's showing was better than the campaign initially expected. "There was a lot of positive emotion and momentum and a lot of people were really able to vote their conscience," she said. "A lot of undecideds went our way."

Lieberman's side -- not surprisingly -- played down the convention results, choosing to focus on the fact that the incumbent won the party's formal nod. Campaign manager Sean Smith said Lieberman emerged from the convention with the "confidence of an overwhelming victory" despite the fact that convention-goers were "angrier and more active than your typical primary voter."

Spin aside, however, Lamont's showing is a stunning symbol of the widespread discontent in the state toward the war in Iraq and Lieberman's support for the conflict. While Dupont-Diehl insisted that Lamont is far from a one-issue candidate, there is little doubt that the galvanizing factor in his campaign is his opposition to the war.

Joe Lieberman
My how times have changed since 2000... . Many Democrats in Connecticut aren't happy with Sen. Lieberman's record on the Iraq war. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

Lieberman is aware of his weakness on the issue and has already begun running campaign ads in which he acknowledges that many within the party disagree with him about Iraq but that on the broader issues like health care and education they are in agreement.

Though Lamont made a considerable splash over the weekend, his prospects of ousting Lieberman on Aug. 8 should not be overestimated. Polling shows the difficulty of Lamont's task. The most recent independent survey -- conducted by Quinnipiac University -- showed Lieberman with a 65 percent to 19 percent lead over Lamont.

Smith said many delegates at the convention saw the endorsement question as a "free vote" to "register displeasure with Lieberman without it costing them anything," and with that demon exorcised they will return to the senator's fold in August.

Lieberman's wide lead in polling is sure to shrink as more Democrats in the state get to know Lamont, but it does encapsulate the challenge inherent in defeating an entrenched incumbent.

How can Lamont make inroads? First, by staying within financial shouting distance of Lieberman. At the end of March, the incumbent had $4.3 million in the bank compared to Lamont's $371,000. Lamont has cut himself $1 million worth of checks in recent days but must raise or contribute several times that much to wage a viable challenge to Lieberman. Lamont doesn't need to be at parity with Lieberman in spending but can't afford (ahem) to be outspent at anything like a two-to-one clip.

Second, Lamont must keep voters' minds focused on the Iraq war while simultaneously broadening the scope of his campaign to other pocketbook issues that could appeal to voters looking for a change. Dupont Diehl provided a preview of that message Monday: "People are very upset about health care, people are very upset about education, people are upset at the attention Iraq is taking away from other issues," she said.

Lamont's convention showing proves that Lieberman is in for a real fight for the Democratic nomination. Lamont remains a decided underdog but has in relatively short order coalesced the anti-Lieberman vote in the state. This should be one of the most entertaining primaries in the country. Regardless of the results, Democrats should be able to hold the seat. Former Derby Mayor Alan Schlesinger won the Republican nod at his party's state convention.

See Post reporter Shailagh Murray's April 30 piece on Lieberman's primary battle.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 22, 2006; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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