"I'm in a battle – I think you all know that," Joe Lieberman tells his supporters, gathered at the air museum near Hartford's airport.
If nothing else, the three-term Connecticut senator and 2000 vice presidential nominee has become a master of understatement. Indeed, the lineup of Democratic senators here to back their colleague said it all, as Sen. Lieberman fights to fend off a humiliating defeat in next Tuesday's primary at the hands of a wealthy, anti-Iraq-war upstart.
On Sunday, no fewer than four senators appeared at Lieberman's side. All that party firepower on the campaign trail probably did more to boost his spirits than actually sway voters.
But their presence suggests they know the stakes. Tuesday's primary is no longer just about one senator's career; it's about the future of the Democratic Party.
A primary victory by Ned Lamont, the businessman who took on Lieberman over his fierce support for the Iraq war and his criticism of Democrats who "undermine presidential credibility" would embolden the Republican Party to paint the Democrats as untrustworthy on national security and willing to purge those who differ with the left, analysts say. "The difficulty for the Democrats in this race is the same one that existed during Vietnam: an unpopular war, but a perception of the party as weak on security," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which backs Lieberman.
Looking ahead to the potential impact on the 2008 presidential race, he adds that an emboldened left "would pose a problem for all the centrists who have stood by their original position on the war in Iraq," including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York.
Democrats warn against reading too much into the results of the Connecticut primary – especially if turnout is low. Still, when asked if he thought a Lamont victory would inspire antiwar candidates to enter the presidential race, Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut said, "It could happen. It wouldn't surprise me if it did."
The latest poll, released July 20 by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., shows Mr. Lamont surging from obscurity into a slight lead over Lieberman, but primaries are tough to predict. Lamont's campaign, the toast of the liberal blogo- sphere, has the energy of an insurgency; the Lieberman campaign, after a slow start, has brought in reinforcements. "It's definitely going to be close," says Lieberman spokeswoman Marion Steinfels.
Complicating matters further for Lieberman's party brethren, the senator has already announced that if he loses in the primary, he will run in November as an independent. The Quinnipiac poll shows Lieberman winning a three-way general election handily, with majority support among Republican and independent voters, and a single-digit showing by the Republican candidate. But in the meantime, Lieberman's Senate colleagues would face a tough choice – sticking with their friend or backing the voters' choice of nominee.
In interviews, Sens. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware and Dodd would not touch that question. But Sen. Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado, like the others, at Lieberman's side on Sunday, says he will stick with Lieberman in the general election. Former President Clinton, who stumped with him in Connecticut last week, says he will support whomever wins the primary.
Lamont strolls into Bennett Memorial Park in Bethel, only his driver in tow, and begins to work the crowd. The Bethel Democratic Town Committee is having a cookout – just the kind of small-town event that Lamont has been visiting since January, when he began his campaign, a strategy that propelled him to a spot on the primary ballot.
It is also the kind of event that some Democrats here say Lieberman was increasingly missing, as he began to see himself more as a national figure than a local one – first as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, then as a candidate for president in 2004. The crowd here is deceptive; some are sporting Lieberman stickers, but not all are talking the talk.
"I'm mad at him; he needed to get back in touch with Connecticut" after the 2000 race, says a local Democratic activist who asked not to be quoted by name. "If he wins his seat, he'll need a good wupping out in the woodshed." Still, she hastens to add that he's been good for the Connecticut economy, keeping jobs in the state, such as the naval submarine base in Groton.
Joe Tarrant of Bethel, a World War II veteran wearing an 11th Airborne Division cap, openly describes himself as a former Lieberman voter. What really bothers him is the senator's decision to go independent if he loses the primary. "And he says he's a good Democrat," Mr. Tarrant says.
Jason Bartlett, a mortgage broker running to represent Bethel and nearby towns in the state legislature, says he's "supporting Lamont but hasn't endorsed him." When asked why, he talks only about Lieberman. "Before I knew who Lamont was, I knew I wanted someone else," he says. The last straw was "when Lieberman said Democrats shouldn't criticize the president over Iraq."
Even the Sunday New York Times endorsement of Lamont spoke mostly about Lieberman, and little about Lamont, merely saying he "seems smart and moderate." (Several Connecticut papers have endorsed Lieberman.) Lamont is happy to provide voters with a choice in what has become a referendum on Lieberman and the Iraq war. But now, he says, he wants voters to know who he is and that he is more than just a single-issue candidate.
"I've said to people, look, you originally showed up because I'm not Joe and I'm against the war, but I want you to vote because of who I am and what I'm for," Lamont said in an interview.
In his short stump speech before the Bethel Democrats, he doesn't mention that his great-grandfather was chairman of J.P. Morgan & Co. or that he attended Exeter and Harvard or that he's worth as much as $300 million. Rather, the Greenwich businessman stresses his entrepreneurial background, having founded a successful cable-TV venture, and his work in education.
"I'm not your typical politician," he says in his speech. "I'm a guy that started up a business from scratch, but I've also been very involved in community ... I've been a teacher at [Warren] Harding High School in Bridgeport, teaching these kids how to start up a business."
He frames his discussion on Iraq in terms of where the nation should be putting its resources – there or here. "Do you want to invest in universal healthcare? Do you want to invest in clean energy, and a clean environmental future for our kids, and do you want to invest in great schools?" he says.
But the Iraq war remains at the heart of his campaign. At the Bethel cookout, an Israeli TV crew is on the scene, getting a take on the man who may replace America's most prominent Jewish politician. The reporter asks about the latest violence. "We [Americans] took our eye off the peace process, where we should have been more involved over the last five years," Lamont says. "That's one of the reasons Israel is under attack today."
At the Greater Hartford Irish Music Festival in Glastonbury last Sunday, Lieberman and his entourage – including two other senators – stroll the field in the blistering heat, greeting voters and mopping their brows. After more than 35 years in Connecticut politics, Lieberman has built up a corps of loyal supporters. Judy Yost of East Granby came out to see the man she worked for back in his days in the state senate.
"He's such an honorable, principled man," she says. "People don't understand his support for the war. It's our troops he's supporting."
Harry Lichtenbaum, a campaign volunteer whose T-shirt announces "I'm Sticking With Joe," says that without Iraq, there would be no Ned Lamont. "Joe wants to get out of Iraq, too, just at the right time," Mr. Lichtenbaum says. "The right time is approaching."
He is also wearing a button of Clinton and Lieberman embracing, captioned "The Hug." It is the campaign's answer to the "Kiss" buttons that became the signature of the anti-Lieberman movement – appearing to show President Bush kissing Lieberman after last year's State of the Union address. If Lieberman loses his Senate seat, that will go down as the kiss of political death.
With a week to go, the campaign is now all about turnout. Lieberman's drop in the latest poll was the wake-up call his voters needed, his campaign says. On July 28, he embarked on a 10-day bus trip, called "Joe's Tomorrow Tour," stopping at diners, shops, and senior centers. Lieberman is reaching out to the working-class, conservative Democrats who he believes are his people, and may not relate too well to that rich guy from Greenwich who's trying to take his job away. Whether Lieberman can recover in time will be clear on Tuesday.