Lieberman Punches, but Lamont Remains Standing

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If Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was looking to completely destroy his opponent, millionaire cable executive Ned Lamont, in their debate Thursday night, it didn't happen. It was clear from the start of the debate, which was broadcast nationally on C-SPAN and MSNBC, that Lieberman was not taking the genial, low-voltage approach of his debate in 2000 against Dick Cheney, his opponent in the Vice Presidential race. Lieberman attacked Lamont nonstop, calling him a "one-issue" candidate who was only focused on opposing the Iraq war, charging that Lamont had flip-flopped on whether the U.S. should withdraw troops from Iraq, and saying he has so little political experience that Connecticut voters had to ask "who is Ned Lamont?" He was dismissive of Lamont, shaking his head at some of his answers and frequently interrupting him to throw him off guard. At one point, after Leiberman said Lamont had taken "his fifth position" on Iraq withdrawal and Lamont responded by largely restating his view that the U.S should withdraw troops soon, Lieberman sighed and noted Lamont had taken his sixth position.

But while Lamont seemed nervous at the start of the debate, with a few awkward pauses between words, he largely held his own against the 18-year Senate veteran and former vice presidential nominee — rebutting Lieberman's attacks and trying to impress on Connecticut voters that Lieberman is too close to President Bush.

The Connecticut Senate Democratic primary between Lamont and Lieberman, which will be held on Aug. 8, has become one of the most closely watched campaigns of 2006, as anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war fervor has helped Lamont wage a competitive challenge to Lieberman, who has infuriated Democrats with his vocal defense of President Bush's Iraq policy. But while nationally the race has become a referendum on the state of the Democratic Party, the division between the party's left and right wings and its position on the Iraq War, the debate saw both candidates trying to change the subject from Iraq. Lieberman, eager to appeal to Democrats who might be frustrated with him on Iraq, continually referred to his work on preventing a Connecticut submarine base from being closed by the Department of Defense and his endorsements by labor, pro-abortion rights and environmental groups for supporting their causes. Meanwhile Lamont tried to expand the number of fronts on which to attack Lieberman as not being a true Democrat: he criticized Lieberman for supporting an energy bill that had tax breaks for big business and attacked him for his support of school vouchers, which most Democrats oppose. But as both candidates listed the issues they were committed to, such as education and health care, it was clear that, as Lieberman suggested, they don't have huge policy differences beyond Iraq.

For all the liberal rhetoric against Lieberman, he's largely a traditional Democrat on most issues. At the same time, Lieberman's constant references to his liberal bona fides weren't particularly effective, since Lamont was to his left on many key issues. Lamont repeatedly said Lieberman didn't stand up to Bush; for instance, Lamont said he supports censuring President Bush for the NSA's warrantless domestic surveillance program, a stance Lieberman has not taken.

The debate was a win for Lamont in that he wasn't embarrassed by Lieberman, which seemed a possibility going in, since Lamont's highest elective office was serving as a city councilman more than a decade ago, while Lieberman has been in the Senate for 18 years and has run for both President and Vice President. The outcome of the race is likely to rest on two factors. One is which candidate can best find and turn out his supporters for a primary in August, when many voters may be on vacation or not paying attention. And the other will be whether Lieberman can remind enough voters in Connecticut of what they liked about him over his three decades in politics in the state.

Yet, while Lieberman is trying to distance himself from the President Bush, he has adopted very Bush-2004-like campaign rhetoric. Two years ago, as support for the Iraq War was declining, one of the President's mantras in his reelection campaign was, "You may not always agree with me, but you always know where I stand," and he repeatedly referred to his experience in being President after 9/11. Lieberman, in the debate and on the stump, has adopted a similar line: "I vote with my Senate Democratic colleagues 90% of the time," he said. "When I vote against them, I've had the courage of my convictions." And he used the debate to repeatedly remind voters of his 18 years of Senate experience. The question is whether Democrats in Connecticut will reward Lieberman's convictions and his experience, or vote for someone who is green but whose convictions are more in line with their own.