Lieberman Challenged Over Support for Iraq War

Joseph Lieberman, a popular three-term Democratic senator from Connecticut, is seeking re-election this year. He is so popular that even a key House Republican has endorsed him. But Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq has angered many Democrats. Democrat Ned Lamont is challenging Lieberman, making the war in Iraq a top issue.

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Eighteen years ago, Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman defeated that state's incumbent Republican Senator Lowell Weicker. He accused Weicker of being out of touch with his constituents. That same charge is being made against Lieberman now as he seeks a fourth term in the Senate. Joseph Lieberman has won reelection virtually unchallenged in the past, but his unwavering support for President Bush's decision to invade Iraq has angered many fellow Democrats. One of them is trying to take Lieberman's place on the ballot in November. NPR's David Welna went to Connecticut and has this report.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Across from the town green in Southington, Connecticut, local Democrats are filling the seats in the town hall meeting room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: These Democrats are here to pick delegates for their state convention in May and in this town founded during the American Revolution, there is still a salty air of rebellion, especially when it comes to Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman. Here's Southington's State Representative Zeke Zalaski.

State Representative BRUCE ZEKE ZALASKI (Democrat, Connecticut): Most of us are questioning his positions on the war and how much support he's given to this president. For many of us we definitely feel he shouldn't be in office.

WELNA: And many even question Lieberman's party affiliation. For homebuilder Don Gekkal(ph), he's way too conservative.

Mr. DON GEKKAL (Homebuilder, Connecticut): Almost like a Republican in a Democrat's clothing.

WELNA: At their convention in May the delegates will have to endorse someone as the Democratic nominee for the Senate, but they've agreed to hold off making any commitments for now. First they want to check out the special guests chairperson Elaine Bedard has invited.

Ms. ELAINE BEDARD (Town Chair, Southington, Connecticut): He is looking to run for the United States Senate and at this point in time I would like to introduce him. Ned, come on up.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: Fifty-two-year-old Ned Lamont is trim, Harvard and Yale educated, and wealthy. The cable T.V. business he founded two decades ago has made him a millionaire. He's only held a few local political posts, but what he lacks in experience, Lamont tries to make up for in enthusiasm and candor.

Mr. NED LAMONT (Democratic Candidate for United States Senate, Connecticut): I'd be a little less than honest if I didn't tell you that not everybody is totally enthusiastic about the idea of a primary challenge. There's some in the party brass that have said, Ned, don't jeopardize a safe seat, don't rock the boat, you know. And my response to that is Connecticut is a progressive state and you're not gonna lose a senator, you're gonna gain a Democrat.

WELNA: For having only announced his Senate challenge two weeks ago, Lamont has a fairly well-polished stump speech. The war in Iraq is his biggest quarrel with Lieberman but he wants a broader message so he talks about healthcare, education, energy and the need to update the state's infrastructure. Still, the first question he gets is about Lieberman's stance on Iraq.

Unidentified Speaker: He gives the impression that Mr. Lieberman's just doing whatever the president wants so don't you think that will be the biggest issue of the campaign, the war in Iraq?

Mr. LAMONT: I think it's the biggest issue. I think it's the biggest issue because it impacts healthcare and education, a lot of our fiscal priorities, and also I think it was the wrong decision for this country. I mean, the president rushed us to war, he didn't ask the tough questions going in, and Senator Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way.

WELNA: Later, in an interview, Lamont expands on why he thinks it's time for someone else, like him, to replace Lieberman.

Mr. LAMONT: I think the Senator, for him, the war in Iraq has been preeminent; it's been a little bit of all Iraq, all the time. I sort of teased him a little bit in my announcement speech the other day, saying Senator, stop by Bridgeport on your way back from Baghdad and listen to what people have to say.

WELNA: In fact, just a couple of hours later Lieberman is stopping by, not in Bridgeport but in nearby West Haven.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): Ah, look at that.

WELNA: It's not, at least officially, a campaign stop. Lieberman's come to this working-class neighborhood as the top Democrat on the panel probing the government response to hurricane Katrina. As a local T.V. news team records the encounter, he knits his brow as a displaced couple from New Orleans tells him about problems they've had getting rent money from FEMA.

Senator LIEBERMAN: Okay, I mean, this teaches me a lot. I'm gonna take it back. Meantime, most important we're gonna ask Amanda for our office to work with you and see if we can, uh, expedite, uh...

Unidentified Speaker #1: And I voted for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Speaker #2: There'll be another chance, right?

Senator LIEBERMAN: You mean, you mean when I got elected Vice-President of the United States (unintelligible).

Unidentified Speaker #1: And we was disappointed you didn't win.

WELNA: Such praise not withstanding, Lieberman has lately had to endure plenty of attacks in the blogisphere. Some label him Senator Fuddy Duddy. Others call him President Bush's favorite Democrat. On the other hand, Connecticut House Republican Christopher Shays says he plans to vote for Lieberman who's more popular among state Republicans than Democrats. Later, standing outdoors in warm spring sunlight, Lieberman's broad smile vanishes when he's told other Democrats are calling him Republican light.

Senator LIEBERMAN: This is, uh, one of the big lies that, uh, the people against me are spreading and I'm not gonna let them get away with it.

WELNA: Lieberman insists he's a proud Democrat.

Senator LIEBERMAN: I was so in opposition to the Bush presidency that I sought the Democratic presidential nomination myself in 2004. So, this notion that because I agree with the goals the president has in Iraq, uh, means that I'm, I've somehow become (laughs), uh, not-a-Democrat, is outrageous.

WELNA: Lamont's challenge, Lieberman says, has energized him. But, he also labels those who oppose him, an angry group representing a kind of politics he calls hurtful to our country--those who say if you're not 100 percent with us, you're not with us.

Senator LIEBERMAN: I've taken a position that I understand is controversial with many people in the Democratic Party on Iraq. I've done it, not for reasons of (laughs) increasing my political popularity, I knew it would not in the Democratic Party, but I'm doing it 'cause I think it's right. And I'm happy to have a debate, a discussion, about Iraq. But I also, uh, want to make sure that my challenger, and all the voters think about the totality of my record.

WELNA: Lieberman says, in fact, his record shows that last year he voted with the majority of Senate Democrats 90 percent of the time. In contrast, the Republican he replaced in the Senate, Lowell Weicker, took pride in bucking his party. Weicker, who later became governor as an Independent, says he's just delighted Ned Lamont's challenging Lieberman.

Mr. LOWELL WEICKER (Republican, Former U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator and Governor from Connecticut): Is he an underdog? You bet he is. There's no question about that. His main problem is name recognition. Nobody knows him in the state of Connecticut.

WELNA: But Connecticut's a small state, Weicker says, where it's not that difficult to get known, which is why Ned Lamont is working, as he puts it, flat-out, to tap into Democrats discontent with Lieberman.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WELNA: At a breakfast gathering in Bridgeport, Lamont recruits new supporters one-by-one. Elizabeth Brown(ph) of Waterbury, who considers Lieberman a man of good character, had never met Lamont before.

Ms. ELIZABETH BROWN (Resident, Waterbury, Connecticut): But I've been hearing some really good things about him so I'm open to really looking at his candidacy 'cause I think what's happening in Washington is absolutely disgraceful.

WELNA: Lamont's counting on such conversions to force Lieberman into an August primary. He needs only 15 percent of the state's delegates at the May convention to do so. But he'll need much wider backing than he has now to win that primary. His support has grown, in step with disillusionment with the war in Iraq, and with the Democratic Senator who still insists it was the right war to wage. David Welna, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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