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How Lieberman Will Help Ct. Republicans

By Kevin Rennie

Connecticut Republicans need to learn to play hard-to-get. The stampede of the rank-and-file members of the GOP to Senator Joseph Lieberman after his primary loss to challenger Ned Lamont on August 8th allowed Lieberman to withstand pressure to drop his independent bid for re-election.

The state's 450,000 Republicans comprise about 25% of the electorate. As Democrats continue to flock to Lamont in the aftermath of his 4-point victory over the three-term incumbent, Lieberman becomes more dependent on Republican support, and he's getting it.

The endorsed Republican candidate, former state Representative Alan Schlesinger, has been dogged by sordid tales of gambling misadventures that include using a false name (Alan Gold) at a state casino and being sued for debts incurred in Atlantic City. The gambling ruckus and calls for him to get off the ticket are the only news his parlous campaign has made since his May nomination.

When last week's Quinnipiac poll showed Schlesinger in a dead heat with the margin of error, even the most stalwart party activists were surprised that only 4% of the faithful were sticking with him. A cringe-making appearance by Schlesinger on MSNBC's "Hardball", however, reminded any doubters of just how bad their candidate remains. No wonder the poll showed 75% of Republicans supporting Lieberman.

Republican leaders had hoped that fellow party members would require a sign from them before supporting Lieberman's bid. That way, they would be in a position to bargain for an open exchange of support. That careful dance, however, will not need to be choreographed.

While the Republicans provide a formidable base for Lieberman, he can't come close to winning with them alone. He needs to hold onto the support of the state's largest block of voters, the 900,000 who aren't registered with a party. So far, he's leading Lamont among those fickle voters, but the competition will for their affection will grow fierce in the next 10 weeks. Lieberman will also need to guard against a complete collapse of his Democratic support.

You don't need to know how to decode the human genome to detect that Lieberman's instinct for self-preservation is asserting itself. He's satisfied, for example, to have an incongruous state of endorsements among congressional candidates continue. Get out your scorecard.

Long before the primary, Lieberman endorsed the Democratic challengers running against Connecticut's three Republican members of Congress. He has indicated he is standing by them. Those three challengers, who endorsed Lieberman in the primary, are now enthusiastically with Lamont. The Republican incumbents, in ways large and small, have shown their preference for Lieberman.

Representative Christopher Shays, the Republican thought to be in the most peril, affirmatively endorsed Lieberman months ago. Shays's people had hoped that after the primary Lieberman would jump to the Republican. Lieberman, however, is standing pat with his support of Democrat Diane Farrell. The other Republican congressmen, Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson have heaped praise on Lieberman and ignored Schlesinger. They should not, however, expect overt assistance from Lieberman.

While composer Stephen Sondheim believed in a lively lyric that "reciprocation in the end is why a friend is true", Lieberman must maintain some distance from the Republicans who are coming to his rescue. Lieberman believes his failure to explain his differences with a Republican president cost him the primary. He doesn't need to add prominent state Republicans to his list of supporters. Better to accept the support of the Republican multitudes with a silent nod than a show of solidarity.

Lieberman has shown in the two weeks since his humiliating defeat that he's refreshed his nose for talent. Last week, he hired DC pollster and Connecticut Republican campaign veteran Neil Newhouse. That deal probably would not have been made without the consent of another Newhouse client, Governor Jodi Rell. Rell is thought to like Lieberman, a fellow moderate. And the senator has had only kind words for Rell in her two years in office.

Nevertheless, Lieberman will inadvertently provide crucial help to Republicans in the next 10 weeks. He will have to drive up Republican turnout, particularly in New York oriented Fairfield County, where many GOP commuters traditionally skip off-year elections. One way will be to emphasize Lamont's support for a major increase in capital gains and dividends taxes, which he repeated on CNBC's "Kudlow and Company" last week. Nothing gets that swath of voters motivated like the threat of a massive tax increase.

And Lieberman brings millions to the table that he can spend on motivating Republicans that the party of Lincoln would not otherwise enjoy. Rell has not been a champ at squeezing contributions out of traditional givers who generously supported her predecessor, John Rowland, through four statewide campaigns. Shays and Simmons face well-funded opponents. The state party offers little help.

The millions that Lieberman spends on appealing to Republicans and incumbent-friendly independents will be a bonus for the three Republicans, even if the senator never mentions their names. In Connecticut politics, it's always more illuminating to watch what Joe Lieberman does, not what he says. This year, move him onto the sparse asset side of the Republican balance sheet.

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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