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Posted at 1:21 PM ET, 12/16/2010

Could "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" save Joe Lieberman?

By Chris Cillizza

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has been a leading voice for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy about gays in the military. Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post

The momentum that appears to be gathering behind Senate passage of a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military could hand Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) a major legislative victory.

But, could it save him in his reelection bid in 2012?

Lieberman has given little indication of what he plans to do in 2012 when he is up for a fifth term. He could -- theoretically -- run as a Democrat, a Republican or even as some sort of independent although each path is fraught with political problems. Lieberman could also retire.

It's hard to dispute the central role Lieberman has played in repealing the policy -- instituted during the Clinton Administration and regarded by large majorities of Democrats as outdated and discriminatory.

After repeal failed as part of a larger defense spending bill, Lieberman -- along with Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) -- pledged to bring it up as a separate measure. Such an approach led to the passage of the bill in the House on Wednesday and, with Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) decision to support a stand-alone repeal, could mean success in the Senate as well.

Repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would be touted by liberals as a major victory -- one of the few they believe they have won over the first two years of the Obama Administration -- and would, at least for the moment, win Lieberman considerable plaudits.

But, according to conversations with a number of Democratic strategists who have worked extensively in Connecticut, a victory on "don't ask, don't tell" comes too late to save Lieberman in the eyes of the state's primary voters.

"DADT is important, and it's great that he is fighting for it, but voters dislike of Lieberman is too strong, burned too deep for it to be erased by this," said one Democratic operative who has done work in the state.

Lieberman's apostasy is well worn narrative among Democrats.

His ardent support for the Iraq war led to his defeat in a 2006 Democratic primary at the hands of wealthy businessman Ned Lamont. His decision to pursue an independent general election bid further enraged Democratic partisans who insisted he was ignoring the will of the people. That he won made things even worse.

Lieberman seemed to revel in his victory and newfound status as a free-agent in the Senate. Although he caucused with Democrats, he not only endorsed the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 but even spoke at the Republican National Convention.

"It's too late," said Ed Peavy, a Connecticut-based Democratic consultant. "He lost the [2006] primary close but the McCain stuff is too hard to overcome." (Peavy has done consulting work for both Rep. Joe Courtney and Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz who are both considering challenges to Lieberman.)

Lieberman's poll numbers among Democrats would seem to suggest Peavy is right. A November 2009 Quinnipiac poll showed that a majority of the state's voters (51 percent) said Lieberman's views were more closely aligned with the Republican party while just 25 percent said he was more in line with the Democratic party. A January 2010 Q poll showed just 27 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing as compared to 67 percent who disapproved.

The other problem for Lieberman as it concerns running -- and winning -- a Democratic primary in 2012 is the near-certainty of a serious challenge from a quality candidate.

Already Courtney, Bysieiwicz and Rep. Chris Murphy (D) are considering the race. Any -- or all -- of them will make a very simple argument against Lieberman if he decides to run for the Democratic nod: he's just not one of us.

While DADT repeal would help Lieberman push back on that argument, his support for the war in Iraq and McCain in 2008 -- not to mention the widespread belief among Democrats that he was responsible for tanking the public option on the health care bill -- could prove determinative.

With former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO and 2010 GOP nominee Linda McMahon making noise about another run for Senate in 2012, Lieberman's best option -- and it's not a terribly good one -- may well be to run as an independent.

While he won't be able to run under the same independent banner as he did in 2006 -- the "party" was seized by his opponents after the election and failed to qualify for ballot status in 2012 -- he could theoretically gather signatures for a newly-named independent effort in two years time.

What is clear is that Lieberman as the Democratic Senate nominee in 2012 is as unlikely in the wake of a possible "don't ask, don't tell" repeal as it was before it. Connecticut Democrats have long memories and aren't likely to forgive Lieberman anytime soon -- if ever.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 16, 2010; 1:21 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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