Lieberman Debates Anti-War Primary Challenger

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is running against an anti-war candidate in the Democratic primary. On Thursday night, he faced businessman Ned Lamont in a televised debate. Lieberman attempted to steer the debate away from the war at every turn. Av Harris of member station WNPR reports.

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Connecticut Senator Joesph Lieberman is running for reelection and first he has to win next month's Democratic Primary. Last night he debated a millionaire businessman, Ned Lamont, in a nationally televised debate. This contest is being watched closely because Lamont is challenging Lieberman's consistent support for the War on Iraq.

Av Harris of member station WPNR in Hartford reports.

AV HARRIS Reporting:

Just six years ago, Joe Lieberman cruised to an easy reelection victory. That was the same year he was on the national ballot as Al Gore's choice for vice president. Yet Lieberman is in the political fight of his life, against a previously unknown candidate who has never run for statewide office. Ned Lamont says Lieberman has abandoned Democratic principles to support President Bush's failed policies in Iraq, and last night's one hour debate was Lamont's first, and possibly last, chance to stand next to Senator Lieberman and deliver that message.

Mr. NED LAMONT (Candidate for Democratic Senate seat, Connecticut): President Bush rushed us into this war. He told us it would be easy, we'd be welcomed as liberators, weapons of mass destruction. And Senator Lieberman cheered on the president, every step of the way, when we should have been asking the tough questions.

HARRIS: Lieberman countered that, even though it has proved politically unpopular, removing Sadaam Hussein was in America's national security interest, and he accused Lamont of flip-flopping on the war.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): My opponent has not leveled and been consistent with the people of Connecticut. He's taken all sorts of positions - one day saying he's for withdrawal, another day, he's not. One day saying he's for a specific deadline, another day, he's not. Ned, and when you're a Senator, you've got to make decisions. By God, if you believe we should get out of Iraq, right now, have the courage of your convictions to say so.

HARRIS: Lieberman clearly sought to steer the debate towards issues besides the war in Iraq, where he has more common ground with his fellow Democrats. Lieberman claims he votes with his party 90 percent of the time, and says he seniority after 18 years in the Senate, brings federal money and jobs to his home state.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I'm one of the Senators who is able to reach across the partisan divide, to get things done, and that's helped me deliver for Connecticut. It helped me save the 31,000 jobs at the sub base in New London. It helps me to clean up Long Island Sound. It helps me to return more money to Connecticut for our transportation funding. And it will help me in the years ahead, which this is all about, not just Iraq.

HARRIS: But Lamont accused Lieberman of being too cozy with Republicans on other issues, such as the Bush administration's energy plan.

Mr. LAMONT: It was a bad bill. It was loaded with tax subsidies for big oil and did little or nothing for conservation and the environment, and freeing us from a horrible dependence upon Middle Eastern oil. And Senator Lieberman's support of the Dick Cheney Energy Bill was a mistake, and it's done nothing for energy prices.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Well, there you go again.

HARRIS: Borrowing a phrase from the late President Ronald Reagan, Senator Lieberman defended his vote.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Very rarely, do you get a perfect bill. The tax credits, for the energy industry in that big energy bill last year, were bad. I said so. As a matter of fact, I'm co-sponsoring legislation with John Kerry, to try to repeal them. But I'll tell you why I voted for the bill. There were other parts of it, including one that I worked very hard on, that led the way, that will save Connecticut electricity customers $800 million. Would you have voted against that?

HARRIS: Ultimately, though, it is Democratic unhappiness over the war in Iraq, that is fueling the Lamont campaign in Connecticut. Yet even though he had several opportunities later in the debate, Lamont did not return to the issue of Iraq to challenge Senator Lieberman. This may have been an effort to show that he's not, as Lieberman claims, a one-issue candidate. Connecticut's primary elections take place on August 8th.

For NPR News, I'm Av Harris in Hartford.

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