Lieberman Loss Watched for Larger Meaning

Political observers are looking for the meaning in Sen. Joseph Lieberman's loss to political novice Ned Lamont in Connecticut's Democratic primary. Does it signal a larger anti-war movement? It was the most important of several notable races on Tuesday that may indicate trends for November's general election.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Senator Lieberman's primary defeat is setting off political alarms for all Democrats. NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams joins us now to analyze the repercussions of Lieberman's loss.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Big political news here. Is there any way to make the case that what happened in Connecticut politics is limited to this one liberal, northeastern Democratic state?

WILLIAMS: Well, you can make a better argument that the defeat was specifically targeted to Senator Lieberman. Even before complaints about his support of the war, you know, he was angering fellow Democrats with his criticism - you'll remember - of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinski scandal and his support of Republican congressional leadership when they were pushing to get the courts involved in keeping Terry Schiavo on life support.

But I think the issue, clearly, that sank Senator Lieberman was the war. You've got to add to that his personal relationship with President Bush. He was on the defensive about that famous kiss the president planted on him at that last State of the Union address. It was only in the last three days that Senator Lieberman even acknowledged problems with the Bush administration policy in Iraq. So there's no other Democrat who was so unapologetic in supporting the president on the war.

MONTAGNE: What about Hillary Clinton - of course, another leading Democrat in the Senate - who voted for the resolution, giving President Bush the power to go to war, as did most senators? She hasn't seemed especially threatened in her reelection bid. Does this change that?

WILLIAMS: No, Renee, the polls show her still holding a very strong lead. And you remember, no strong anti-war candidate has emerged to challenge her like Ned Lamont in Connecticut.

The big difference, though, is that she has responded to increasing public discontent with the war. For example, in the last week or so - with polls showing Lieberman poised to lose - Senator Clinton called for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to resign. She has opposed setting a date for U.S. pullout of troops, but has joined in what is now an emerging consensus among Democrats on Capital Hill that President Bush's open-ended commitment to the war is wrong.

MONTAGNE: And looking for a moment ahead to the 2008 presidential nomination, how's the Iraq war resolution and those who voted for it likely to impact that race on the Democratic side?

WILLIAMS: Well, all the leading candidates supported the resolution allowing the President to begin the war - Senator Kerry, Senator Joe Biden, Senator Evan Bayh, as well as former Senator John Edwards - are all in the same boat. So is Senator Clinton. Only Russ Feingold - a dark horse in the presidential race - voted against the resolution.

Since those votes, most of the possible contenders have been careful to defy Republican images of Democrats as weak on defense and not worthy of trust in combating terrorism. I think Senator Lieberman's loss will inevitably change that and push the candidates to more aggressively challenge the Republican president on Iraq. The question now is how far will any of the candidates go to satisfy an electorate that's, you know - the base at least is clearly angry over the war. Will any of them call for setting a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops?

For example, Ned Lamont - who defeated Senator Lieberman - has called for U.N. forces to replace U.S. troops in Iraq. No one in the Senate has joined that proposal.

MONTAGNE: And Juan, let's hear now - quickly, to two other incumbents who lost races yesterday. Michigan Republican Representative Joe Schwartz lost his party's nomination. And in Georgia, Congressman Cynthia McKinney lost the Democratic runoff election. What happened there, in brief?

WILLIAMS: Well, McKinney is controversial. She'd suggested President Bush had prior knowledge of 9/11. Then in March, she had a scuffle with a Capitol Hill police officer. It was a steady downward spiral after that, Renee. She could not win 50 percent of the vote against two little-known challengers. That led to yesterday's runoff in former DeKalb County. Commissioner Hank Johnson basically presented himself as a non-controversial steady alternative to McKinney, and that was enough to unseat her.

In Michigan, what happened there was Joe Schwartz - a pro-choice Republican - lost to a strong conservative, Tim Walberg, in a race that attracted millions of dollars from outside groups. So you see there again, influence of a specific issue in the race.

MONTAGNE: Thanks for the analysis, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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