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Is This the Best Lieberman Can Do?

By Kevin Rennie

Commentators who blame Senator Joseph Lieberman's troubles with Connecticut Democrats on left-wing netroots spend too much time in front of their screens. The revolt against Lieberman comes from rank-and-file Democrats the embattled incumbent once hailed. Proof of that came in May when a third of state Democratic delegates supported little known challenger Ned Lamont over the three-term incumbent. Those delegates were the same stalwarts who attend conventions year after year. Opposition to Lieberman over his support of the war in Iraq explains much but not all of the revolt against the status quo.

Though both candidates are on the air broadcasting commercials to the state. Lieberman has enough money to dominate the airwaves with what so far have been tepid appeals that feature the weary senator. Lamont's have been more alternated from lighthearted, nearly arch, to mocking. If he dips into his considerable fortune, Lamont will be able to match Lieberman everyday. He expressed some reservations about doing that in a January interview, but he's come to like the idea of winning this race. And several million more shoveled into ad buys will not do much to the family exchequer.

The intense and important war is on the ground on telephones and front yards around the state. Connecticut is not accustomed to primaries. It's been 36 years since the last Democratic primary for the United States Senate. Democrats are not in the habit of voting in primaries, so you've got to hunt for likely voters.

Both Lamont and Lieberman have enough support to win. The victor will be the one who gets his supporters to the polls on August 8th. And here is where it starts to look like advantage Lamont. The Greenwich insurgent (a new Connecticut oxymoron) has attracted an army of energetic campaign workers.

They are manning the phone banks and hitting the doorsteps in numbers Lieberman cannot match. Washington Republicans' favorite Democrat abandoned the state six years ago and is paying a fearsome price for it this summer. When Al Gore tapped Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, Connecticut lost a senator. Excitement turned to grousing when Lieberman refused to give up his Senate re-election bid. It looked selfish that Lieberman hedged his bets on the national ticket by insisting running for two offices at once.

Lieberman's sad run for the presidency kept him out of the state for several more years, and the grumbling grew. Lieberman never commanded the same devotion party activists have given to Chris Dodd for three decades. That ardor never flags.

Somewhere around 100,000 votes ought to win it on primary night. A 30% turnout, about 200,000 voters, would break all state primary records. The campaigns need to find them, nag them and then check them off on primary day. Lamont is on pace to doing that in the numbers he needs. He'll be assisted by the several thousand independent voters who have until noon on August 7th to switch registration to participate in the closed primary.

Lieberman is learning a lesson inflicted here on George III: mercenaries are no match for passionate volunteers. Lieberman is having to pay for what Lamont gets for free: troops. They are calling friends and neighbors in phone banks around the state that the campaign has no trouble filling. In many ways, it's an old fashioned campaign.

Connecticut politicians love lawn signs. And they are everywhere for Lamont. The Lieberman campaign woke up recently to find itself badly behind in the anecdotal war over how many signs each side could plant. His campaign had to deploy majordomo and longtime aide Sherry Brown to gin up the lawn sign effort. It was a sign of the parlous state of his campaign that Brown made calls and delivered individual signs to supporters. Picture Susan Estrich stopping at your house in 1988 to stick a Dukakis sign in the grass. Dire is the word that comes to mind.

Luckily, the last week of the primary campaign will see a boost in Lieberman volunteers. Friends and former staffers and friends from Washington plan to invade the state to tell Connecticut Democrats that they should not turn their backs on saintly Joe Lieberman. That always goes down well with the natives. Lanny Davis and the Washington establishment providing pious testimonials for their man, what a week it will be. Maybe Sean Hannity will pitch in with some encomiums. At least Imus, a registered Republican, does it with humor and lives here on the weekends.

If that's the best Lieberman can do it explains why he looks so forlorn at the snootful of democracy he's getting.

Kevin Rennie, a former state senator, is a columnist for the Hartford Courant. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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