WHEN he was defeated in 1988 by a slim margin for a fourth term as United States senator from Connecticut, liberal Republican Lowell Weicker said he was through with politics. A year and a half later, he is the front-runner in the race for governor, running as an independent.
Mr. Weicker's entry into the race March 2 was the first significant twist in what promises to be an unusual campaign. The second took place last week when Gov. William O'Neill, a Democrat finishing his second term, decided not to run.
``I firmly believe I could win reelection,'' Governor O'Neill told a press conference last week. ``But the modern process of campaigning is a rigorous one. It exacts a toll on the body and the spirit which, at this point in my career, I do not choose to pay.''
O'Neill's decision came as polls showed him running a distant third behind Weicker and the GOP front-runner, US Rep. John Rowland. O'Neill's popularity plummeted last year after enactment of a $1 billion tax increase to balance the state budget. The state sales tax went up to 8 percent, the highest in the country.
Despite the increase, the state is facing a $200 million deficit this fiscal year as well. The issues of taxation and deficits will likely figure heavily in the campaign.
The governor's withdrawal has left the Democrats scrambling for a candidate. US Rep. Bruce Morrison, a four-term liberal, has claimed front-runner status. ``He is the only one with the money, staff, and organization,'' says Morton Tenzer, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut.
But Representative Morrison - who is a bit of a maverick - is unpopular with many Democrats, especially party insiders, Dr. Tenzer says. ``Morrison may end up getting the nomination, but no organizational support.''
Weicker's entry into the race will also hurt Morrison's candidacy, Tenzer says, since ``his [liberal] voter base is precisely that which is eroded by Weicker.''
Also running for the Democratic nomination is state Rep. William Cibes (pronounced SEE-biss) of New London, who declared hours after O'Neill's withdrawal. Others who may run include state Senate President Pro Tem John Larson of East Hartford; former West Hartford Mayor Christopher Droney, brother of state party chairman John Droney; state Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Stamford, who is currently running for attorney general; and former state Rep. Timothy Moynihan of East Hartford, a former state party chairman.
Both Mr. Cibes and Mr. Larson have been supporters of Governor O'Neill and could garner support from the party's old guard, but belong to a younger generation of politician, Tenzer says.
Cibes's campaign is notable for his proposal that Connecticut adopt an income tax on earnings above $20,000 and reduce the sales tax to 5 percent. The state currently has no income tax.
Republican Rowland, a conservative, was first elected to Congress in 1984 at age 27 and remains the youngest member of Congress. Other Republicans seeking the nomination are state Senate minority leader Reginald Smith of New Hartford; Joel Schiavone, a millionaire New Haven businessman; and Joseph McGee, a Fairfield banker.
Mr. Schiavone has spent $1 million in his campaign so far, but it appears unlikely he will get the 20 percent of delegate votes at the Republican state convention to qualify for the primary. Rowland press secretary Jack Goldberg says the congressman expects no primary opposition.
Rowland's campaign publicly plays down the Weicker candidacy, to the point of disputing that he is leading in the race.
``John Rowland is the front-runner,'' Mr. Goldberg says. ``He is a major party candidate, and Lowell Weicker can't be expected to maintain momentum for a serious period of time.'' Rowland's main opponent will be the Democratic nominee, Mr. Goldberg asserts.
But polls conducted for the Hartford Courant immediately after Weicker's announcement and before O'Neill's withdrawal showed Weicker leading Rowland, with either O'Neill or Morrison in third.
Weicker ``is a formidable candidate in a three-way race,'' says Everett Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and a political science professor at the University of Connecticut. ``It's hard to picture him not getting 37 percent to 40 percent of the vote. Forty percent to 30 percent to 30 percent looks like the natural structure for the race.''
Tenzer points out that the polls were conducted before either party had a candidate, and that a lot of people are undecided. ``Whether or not [Weicker's lead] will hold is just speculation,'' he says.