WASHINGTON — In the world of politics, it doesn't get much weirder than the Connecticut Senate race. The incumbent, Joseph Lieberman, lost his primary as a Democrat earlier this month, is now running as an independent, and polls strongest among Republicans.
The Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, started his campaign in obscurity, caught fire among the antiwar left, and now enjoys the backing of the party establishment.
The Republican nominee, Alan Schlesinger, polls in the single digits and has ignored calls by his party to drop out after reports about gambling. The state GOP has given up trying to find someone who might actually win the contest.
So in effect, Senator Lieberman has become the Republican in the race – despite voting 90 percent of the time with the Democrats, and despite assurances that he will still caucus with them come January if he wins. But those details didn't deter former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative Republican, from endorsing Lieberman, because of his views on foreign policy.
Only one point seems certain: Lieberman's Senate seat will remain in the Democratic column. But that hasn't stopped the race from being a barometer of broader anti-incumbent pressure.
At a time of high partisanship in Washington, with control of Congress up for grabs in the November midterms, the Connecticut scramble may be confusing to the casual observer. In the context of "blue" Connecticut, however, there is a logic.
"Lieberman really is like other Republicans in the state," says Ken Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "Most Republicans here don't like the national Republicans. Lieberman is an independent, really."
Connecticut has a tradition of political independence. Former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, whom Lieberman defeated in 1988, came back to political life as an independent in 1990 and won the governorship. Connecticut's largest bloc of voters – 43 percent – are independent, with 34 percent Democratic and 23 percent Republican.
Ultimately, though, the Connecticut race boils down to Democrat vs. Democrat, so the national party committees are not putting money in it. Still, Tom Swan, Mr. Lamont's campaign manager, says the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has provided research on message development and advice on funding. Most Senate Democrats with political action committees have donated money to Lamont.
And many of the Senate Democrats showing signs of presidential ambition have endorsed and pledged to help La- mont. After all, anyone seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008 hopes for just the kind of energy and support that Lamont supporters brought to his race.
For someone like Senator Dodd, Connecticut's senior senator and a friend of Lieberman, backing Lamont carries a bittersweet element. Some observers expected Dodd to lie low during the campaign, but according to Mr. Swan, he is organizing a unity picnic on Sept. 3 for the entire state Democratic ticket.
Lieberman has not been completely frozen out by his Democratic Senate colleagues. A handful are on record endorsing his reelection bid. Those votes of confidence matter not in Connecticut, but in Washington. If Lieberman wins, he'll need supporters to preserve his seniority and committee assignments.
A Lieberman win would also provide vindication for the Bush White House, in its quest for support on Iraq. Though both Lamont and Lieberman have sought to broaden the focus of the race, Iraq is still Topic A. The day after Lamont's four-point victory in the Aug. 8 primary, Vice President Cheney organized a conference call with reporters expressly to praise Lieberman and bemoan his "purging" from the Democratic Party over his support for an "aggressive posture" abroad.
In a state where President Bush's job approval rating is in the 20s, too much love from the White House might hurt Lieberman. "If you're Lieberman, you don't want Cheney or Bush to say anything about you at all," says Mr. Dautrich.
Since the primary, Lieberman has stepped up criticism of the Bush administration, calling on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign, but also stuck to his core support for the US mission in Iraq. In a talk-radio interview Tuesday, he said that Iraq has become "another battlefield in this war with Islamic terrorists, and we've got to end it with a victory."
With Lieberman polling strong among Connecticut's Republicans and Lamont doing the same among Democrats, the race could boil down to unaffiliated voters.
"[Lamont] has to convince independents that Lieberman's record is too extreme for an independent," says Donald Greenberg, chairman of the political science department at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., and a Lamont supporter. Lamont also has to convince independents that he's really a moderate, and not too ideological, he adds.
Despite the nationwide attention to the Lieberman-Lamont primary, in which 283,000 people voted, businessman Lamont remains less known to the state's 1.7 million other voters than does Lieberman, a 35-year veteran of Connecticut politics and the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000. It's unclear whether general-election voters are as thirsty for change as primary voters were.
The latest polls give both camps cause for joy. Last week, a survey by Quinnipi- ac University in Hamden, Conn., showed Lieberman beating Lamont 53-41, with 4 percent for Mr. Schlesinger. But a poll released this week by the New Hampshire-based American Research Group put Lieberman's lead over Lamont at just 2 percent – 44 percent to 42 percent.