Lieberman and Lamont Run for the Senate: Round 2

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is running for reelection as an independent against the man who beat him in the Democratic primary, Ned Lamont. Lieberman is comfortable running as a man between two parties, while Lamont is expanding his campaign beyond the anti-war message that took him to victory in the primary.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, recalling a perfect cousin.

But first, maybe the most unusual Senate race in the country this year is in Connecticut, where the Democrat, Ned Lamont, is running against the same person he defeated in the Democratic primary, incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman. Mr. Lieberman was the only sitting senator to lose a primary this year. Now he's running as an independent. The Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, has essentially become irrelevant as the national Republican Party is openly rooting for Senator Lieberman, who's been a strong supporter of the war in Iraq. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): Hey. Look at that. This is great. Thank you. Thumbs up. Do you feel the difference from the primary? I do.

MARA LIASSON: Senator Joe Lieberman is standing on a street corner in Southington, Connecticut, waving at motorists, who smile and wave back. It's a brilliant New England fall day and Southington is in the midst of its annual apple festival.

Mr. BOB BIRKMIS(ph) (Southington Democratic Town Committee): Here guys, these are the best.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Oooh, they're warm too.

Mr. BIRKMIS: Apple fritters.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Oh, they are delicious.

Mr. BOB BIRKMIS: Aren't they really?

LIASSON: The fritters come courtesy of Bob Birkmis, vice chairman of the Southington Democratic Town Committee.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I am appreciative, as we say at our campaign, that he's sticking with Joe.

Mr. BOB BIRKMIS (Democratic Town Committee): Absolutely. Absolutely.

LIASSON: Burkmis is one of the handful of Democratic officials who are still publicly supporting Lieberman. The rest, even those who remain friendly to Lieberman, have endorsed the winner of the Democratic primary, Ned Lamont. Lieberman received 48% of the vote in the primary, not enough to overcome the wave of anger Connecticut Democrats felt at Lieberman's outspoken support for President Bush and the war in Iraq. Now Lieberman is trying to hold on to the Democratic votes he received and reach out to Republicans and independents.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I find a lot of people just ready to vote for something different than the conventional two political parties. So by necessity I have been - I have been put in the position that - actually that - the pain of the primary defeat, and it was painful, feels in many ways today like a blessing.

LIASSON: A blessing because now Lieberman is truly liberated. He's running a campaign against both parties and what he calls partisanship and polarization, two things that voters hate about politics. It's a very comfortable position for Lieberman and one he's occupied before, to the great annoyance of Democrats and the delight of Republicans.

Unidentified Woman #1: Here you go.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you. Enjoy.

LIASSON: Over at the apple fritter stand, operated by the Zion Lutheran Church, Terry Planamorrow(ph) of Bristol says she's an independent voter and she's sticking with Lieberman.

Ms. TERRY PLANAMORROW (Lieberman Supporter): Because I think he's been doing a great job.

LIASSON: What do you think about the war? Is that important to you?

Ms. PLANAMORROW: Yeah, it is, but I don't think they should set a date and pull out.

LIASSON: That is essentially Lieberman's position. But his support of the war and his defense of the way President Bush has handled it cost him the vote of Joe Shircuit(ph).

Mr. JOE SHIRCUIT (Lamont Supporter): I'm going to vote for the Democratic candidate.

LIASSON: Ned Lamont?

Mr. SHIRCUIT: Right.

LIASSON: Can you tell me why?

Mr. SHIRCUIT: I just think a change is in order. Lieberman's attachment to the Republican Party has bothered me.

LIASSON: Pastor Jim Debner(ph) of the Zion Lutheran Church is working the fritter machine. Debner says he was unhappy when Lieberman didn't step aside after the primary.

Reverend JIM DEBNER (Zion Lutheran Church): When he decided not to honor his loss and go on his own, that's how we teach our children, isn't it? When you go to a contest and you lose, you say okay.

LIASSON: Debner is upset about the war and he says he's leaning to Lamont, but Lieberman's message has made an impression on him.

Rev. DEBNER: One of the things he has done, I think, is tried to reach across aisles and try to be a little bit more neutral and not just in one party and that's how we're going to go. And I think that's given something, I mean that we need to do more of.

LIASSON: This is the message Lieberman delivers at every single campaign stop, particularly when he's talking about Ned Lamont.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: He is inexperienced, and I believe would just add to the partisanship and polarization in Washington that it blocking progress on solving some of our nation's and people's most serious problems.

LIASSON: Lamont rejects that argument in a tone that suggests he can't believe Lieberman is actually making it.

Mr. NED LAMONT (Democratic Senatorial Candidate): That's nonsense. He's an 18-year career politician down in Washington, D.C. I'm coming to this thing as an outsider, going to go down there and shake up how we do business. But look, it's not partisan to stand up to this rush to war and ask the tough questions going in. And its not bipartisan just to rubber stamp it and say anybody who critiques, you know, the Bush rush to war is somehow being partisan. You be strong, you be bold, be clear, let people know where you stand on the issues. Then you work in good faith to do things better.

LIASSON: Since the primary, Lamont has begun to talk about other issues like energy independence and health care. But he remains identified with the one issue that catapulted him into the race: the war in Iraq. On Thursday, he was in New Britain accepting the endorsement of a group of anti-war vets.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh yes, yes, yes, I do, because I've the patch somewhere. I should have brought it today.

Unidentified Man #3: What I would think would be a good thing is to have veterans who fought in Iraq debate other veterans who fought in Iraq about the policies of you versus the policies of Joe Lieberman.

LIASSON: And yesterday, Lamont appeared at a rally on the campus of the University of Connecticut.

Mr. LAMONT: We have 140,000 of our bravest troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war over in Iraq and I think it's time for us to start bringing our troops home.

(Soundbite of applause)

CROWD: We want Ned! We want Ned! We want Ned!

LIASSON: The outcome of this race will have no effect on which party controls the Senate. Lieberman has said if he wins, he'll continue to caucus with the Democrats. But its combatants believe the race has a lot to say about the future of the Democratic Party. Here's Lamont campaign manager Tom Swan.

Mr. TOM SWAN (Lamont Campaign Manager): When Ned Lamont wins this race, it's going to bring new energy, new ideas and a new perspective to the Democratic Party. They're not just going to look like a party of insiders two degrees different than the Republican Party of Washington, D.C.

LIASSON: If the Lieberman/Lamont race is a proxy for the long term debate inside the Democratic Party, it's not surprising that Lieberman campaign strategist Josh Isay has a different view.

Mr. JOSH ISAY (Lieberman Campaign Strategist): Democrats have to choose the way we're going to go. And are we going to embrace Democrats who believe in strong foreign policy and strong defense or are we going to reject that? Is the Democratic Party open to both the left and the center or are we just a party of the far left?

LIASSON: Polls show Lieberman ahead. But no one here is confident about predicting what could happen in a Senate race that has already defied expectations. Now Lieberman and Lamont are asking voters in Connecticut to decide what makes them more unhappy - Lieberman's support of the war or polarization and partisanship in Washington, D.C.?

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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