Lieberman, Lamont Battling for Democratic Party's Soul?

The political future of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman is in jeopardy Tuesday in the state's Democratic primary. Lieberman and challenger Ned Lamont, engaged in a final flurry of campaigning over the weekend. Many see this as a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party — at least when it comes to Iraq.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This election year is proving to be a challenging one for a couple of senior figures in Congress. The embattled Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Nay is telling a Pennsylvania newspaper that he is dropping out of the race. We'll have more on that in a moment.

MONTAGNE: A new poll shows that Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is closing the gap between himself and his challenger, businessman Ned Lamont, but he is still in jeopardy ahead of tomorrow's Democratic primary. The two candidates engaged in a final flurry of campaigning this past weekend and the race is attracting national attention as many see this as a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party - at least when it comes to Iraq. Last night, Lieberman defended his support for the war and argued he has stood up to President Bush, despite his opponent's claims.

NPR's Brian Niiler reports.

BRIAN NIILER: For eight months now, since he announced his candidacy in January, Ned Lamont has methodically attacked Joseph Lieberman's vote in the Senate to go to war with Iraq and Lieberman's continued support for that war. Last night, just two days before Connecticut Democrats go to the polls in what has become a referendum on that decision, Lieberman offered the explanation his backers said should have come months ago.

Speaking at a senior center in West Haven, Lieberman said as someone who voted for the war, he feels a, quote, heavy personal responsibility to do everything he can to bring the troops home as soon as possible.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): But if we simply give up and pull out now like my opponent wants to do, I'm convinced that would be a disaster, for the Iraqis and for us.

NIILER: Liebermann appeared with his Democratic Senate colleague Chris Dodd and former Georgia Senator Max Cleland. Lieberman said his record had been distorted by Lamont, as he said Cleland's record had been distorted by Republicans four years ago.

And Lieberman took on another charge that he's been too cozy with Republicans in the Senate.

Senator LIEBERMAN: I know that sometimes in the United States Senate, the best way to deliver for the people who sent to me Washington is to work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And I'll tell you this: That doesn't make me a bad Democrat, it makes me a better Senator for the state of Connecticut.

NIILER: That kind of talk appeals to Lieberman supporter Christopher Tracey(ph), a Fairfield firefighter who said the Senator has come through during times of crisis.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER TRACEY (Firefighter, Fairfield, Connecticut): That all those Democrats that are long-term Democrats - not the Johnny-come-latelys that just registered because they're angry - but the real hardcore Democrats, the ones like my dad and granddad, they're going to come out in favor of Senator Lieberman. That's what I believe.

NIILER: Lamont continued to push his message of change, one that, according to the polls, appears to have resonated with the majority of Connecticut Democrats. The Greenwich businessman says his is not a single-issue bring-the-troops-home-now campaign but says that issue feeds everything else.

Mr. NED LAMONT (Democratic Candidate for Senate, Connecticut): We're losing our manufacturing jobs. We're losing our defense-related jobs. People feel like the middle class is slipping from their grasp. And people, sort of, project that on the war. How come we're spending $250 million over there? We're not investing in our cities and investing in our people here.

NIILER: And Lamont takes issue with Lieberman's charge that Lamont has misrepresented his record.

Mr. LAMONT: ...don't know. Have I misrepresented his position on Iraq? Have I misrepresented his position on the energy bill? Have I misrepresented his position on Terry Schiavo? I've told you what my positions are there, and he can say what his position is. But they're real differences between the Senator and I on some big issues.

NIILER: Denise Marshal(ph), a 40-year-old social worker, pushes a stroller at the Orange Firemen's Carnival. A former Lieberman supporter, she says she'll be voting for Lamont on Tuesday.

Ms. DENISE MARSHAL: Lieberman's done a lot of good things. He helped save a lot of jobs. But I really think it's time for a change. He's been there, what, three terms. I think it's time for a change. And I think...

NIILER: Both candidates spent much of the gorgeous summer weekend hop-scotching around the state, shaking hands at festivals celebrating everything from Italian-Americans to jazz, to Gospel music. At the firemen's carnival, Lamont showed his skill at a midway game of darts.

Mr. LAMONT: What do I do?

Unidentified Woman: [Unintelligible]

Mr. LAMONT: What color do you want me to hit.

Unidentified Woman: Any one.

Unidentified Man: Any one.

Mr. LAMONT: All right. You're ruining my chances. Yeah.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. LAMONT: Two out of three, not bad.

NIILER: A tally Lamont wouldn't mind, come tomorrow.

Brian Niiler, NPR News, Meriden, Connecticut.

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