Lieberman, Lamont Build Cases for Senate

Ned Lamont is challenging Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for Senate in Connecticut. The race, which has drawn national attention, is largely seen as a referendum on incumbent Sen. Lieberman's position on the war in Iraq. Lieberman announced in June that he will run as a third-party candidate if he fails to win the nomination. Robert Siegel talks separately with Lieberman and Lamont.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, the two candidates running in next month's Democratic primary for U.S. Senator from Connecticut. The incumbent, Joseph Lieberman, is completing his third term and until recently, he looked like a shoe-in for a fourth. But Lieberman has been challenged for his position on the war in Iraq. His challenger, Ned Lamont, has made a real race out of it, running either even or slightly ahead in the polls.

SIEGEL: Both men were campaigning today in Connecticut. Former President Clinton appears with Lieberman this evening. Ned Lamont spoke with us from Bridgeport.

First question, would he have been the fourteenth vote in support of John Kerry and Russell Feingold's resolution for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by next July?

Mr. NED LAMONT (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Connecticut): I would have supported the Kerry-Feingold resolution. I believe that the invasion of Iraq was ill-conceived. I think the president rushed us into this war. And I think that those that got us into this mess should be held accountable.

SIEGEL: Do you hold Senator Lieberman accountable as one of those responsible for the mess?

Mr. LAMONT: I do. I think we should have asked a lot tougher questions going in and I believe that Senator Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way.

SIEGEL: What happens if indeed, come the middle of next year, the sectarian violence is still worse, the Iraqi army is still not up to the task and a rapid withdrawal by the U.S. would be read as a green light to every group in Iraq to go kill the group that it's against?

Would you still say, we've got to get out. It was a misbegotten war. Or would you say we should stay there?

Mr. LAMONT: I think every day that we're there we're making the situation worse. I think the best hope for success is we start bringing our troops out, they start replacing us on the front lines and perhaps, without us being there on the front lines, we can begin to internationalize this, get the Arab League, get the United Nations back involved. But I think the time for our front line military presence is just about over.

SIEGEL: But the U.S. has been losing allies rather than gaining them in this process. When you speak of success, is it more important for the U.S. to get out than for the new Iraqi regime to stand up?

Mr. LAMONT: I would turn what the president says on its head. He says that we'll stand down as soon as the Iraqis stand up.

I don't think the Iraqis will stand up until we stand down.

SIEGEL: Generally, on Bush foreign policy, are you critical also of the president's handling of, say, the current crisis in Lebanon?

Mr. LAMONT: I believe that the war in Iraq was a terrible distraction. I believe that the United States should have taken a lead role when it came to the peace negotiations in the Middle East, in particular, as regards to Israel and her neighbors.

And when Mahmoud Abbas took over the PLO, I think that was an opportunity for the United States to get re-engaged. We missed that opportunity. We were mired in Iraq. Iraq has destabilized the Middle East. It's emboldened Iran. And now with an emboldened Iran, that makes Israel more vulnerable.

But here we are today. I think it's important that the United States take a leadership role again when it comes to the peace negotiations there. I'm supportive of a ceasefire, but a ceasefire that deals with Hezbollah and deals with the insurgents there in southern Lebanon.

SIEGEL: Well, the question surrounding the ceasefire is should it me immediate, that is a ceasefire before Israel has done further damage to Hezbollah, or should Israel be given a few days to pursue its objectives and then a ceasefire take effect after, as the administration would say, after Hezbollah can claim no victory?

Do you support the administration on that point, or would you prefer an immediate ceasefire?

Mr. LAMONT: I'd be more aggressive than this administration has been over the last five years and over the last five days when it comes to a negotiating a real peace agreement.

But as I said before, Robert, I think it's very important that any ceasefire or any peace agreement does deal with Hezbollah and southern Lebanon. The UN resolution 1559 clearly states that Hezbollah has got to be cleared out of there. The Lebanese government has got to take control over its sovereignty there and that hasn't happened. And perhaps an international force will affect that.

SIEGEL: But I'm not hearing the answer to the question of the past week, which was ceasefire now or, as Secretary Rice, would say, no. That would be the wrong thing to do would be to have an immediate ceasefire right now.

Mr. LAMONT: A ceasefire as long as it also deals with the fact that Hezbollah is in southern Lebanon and that has to be de-militarized.

SIEGEL: What do you make of the fact that President Clinton is coming to Connecticut to speak on behalf of Senator Lieberman?

Mr. LAMONT: I know that President Clinton goes way back with Joe Lieberman and he's there out of a state of loyalty, but on August 9th, we're going to be united as a Democratic party going forward and I think they'll be united behind Ned Lamont.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Lamont, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. LAMONT: Mr. Siegel, thank you for inviting me.

SIEGEL: It's Ned Lamont, who is the challenger in the Connecticut Senate primary.

The incumbent, Joseph Lieberman, spoke to us from New Haven. He told us that he has his own misgivings over the war in Iraq.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): This is something that Mr. Lamont leaves out. He makes me into a soldier marching step by step behind President Bush. I supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. I think it was the right thing to do, but I've been very critical of the administration in its failure to have sufficient troops in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown, the failure of a workable plan to secure the country, the refusal to turn the country over to the Iraqis earlier. I could go on.

But the fact is, that we're there now. And the most significant question is, what is the idea about how to end this successfully? The sooner we get out of Iraq, the better, but if we leave too soon, while the Iraqis still have a chance to achieve a free and independent country, then we're going to create a disaster for the Iraqis and for us.

SIEGEL: But you were one of only six Democrats in the Senate who did not vote for the Levin-Reed resolution.

Senator LIEBERMAN: That's correct.

SIEGEL: And you're in a minority in your party. If in fact the majority of Democratic voters feel that this is a misbegotten policy, and think we should get out, why shouldn't they have a senator who votes that way?

Senator LIEBERMAN: Well, that's their right, but of course, what I'm saying is two things. One, please respect me for taking a position on this war that is obviously not done for political reasons.

Secondly, don't forget the rest of my record, a very progressive record, particularly on domestic questions. And think about the future, as President Clinton would say. Who's going to do a better job for you, Ned Lamont or Joe Lieberman, in the six tough years ahead?

SIEGEL: You mentioned former President Clinton. You cite him with the sentiment of keeping your eye on the future. So long as the future is in July, President Clinton supports you in the primary. But after the primary, after August, we expect he and many other prominent Democrats will support the winner of the primary. That could be you. It could be Ned Lamont. Why not respect the Democratic Party leadership and say I'm a Democrat, I'll support the Democrats?

Senator LIEBERMAN: Well, I expect the winner of the primary will be me. What I have done, as you know, is to open up an option. And I do that with all respect to my fellow Democrats. I've been a devoted Democrat for four decades now.

But my - I have a devotion higher than to my party and that is to my state and to my country and that I want to give the final choice to all the voters of Connecticut on November 7, not just a minority of Democrats who come out on a hot day in August.

SIEGEL: To go back to Iraq before I let you go.

Senator LIEBERMAN: Okay.

SIEGEL: Senator Rockefeller, Jay Rockefeller, fellow Democrat of yours, said quite some time ago, he said, very simply, if I had known then what I know now about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, about the absence of connections to al-Qaida before the U.S. invasion and about the pretty stiff resistance we've met with in the breakdown in order there, he wouldn't have voted to approve the war.

It appears that there's nothing of significant regret that you feel, despite those very erroneous forecasts of what this war was going to be all about. Am I right?

Senator LIEBERMAN: Oh, no, no, no. I am very upset about the poor intelligence and poor judgment about what was going to happen after we overthrew Saddam Hussein. That's probably the most colossal failure - consequential failure - of intelligence and leadership by this administration. In Iraq, we weren't prepared for what was going to happen, but on the fundamental question of whether we were right to go in to overthrow Saddam Hussein, I believe we were.

SIEGEL: Senator Lieberman, thank you very much for talking with us.

Senator LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. We heard earlier from his challenger in the Democratic Senate primary, Ned Lamont.

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