Why the GOP May Not Gain from Lieberman's Loss

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Nothing whets the appetite of a political party like two members of the opposing party tearing each other to pieces. So after Connecticut Democrats delivered the final blows in Tuesday's bruising primary between incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman and anti-war multi-millionaire Ned Lamont — and with Lieberman vowing to run as an independent — you'd think Republicans would be licking their chops. With Leiberman's loss, the GOP could actually make a run for his crucial Senate seat. If they had the right candidate.

Problem is, very few people think Alan Schlesinger — or Alan Gold, as he used to call himself when he was gambling at Connecticut's Indian casinos — is the right candidate. Last spring, back when Lamont was a joke and Lieberman looked unassailable, Schlesinger took the time to tour Connecticut collecting enough votes to get himself the Republican nomination. The former state legislator and mayor of Derby was not exactly a political star, but no one begrudged him the work he put in to get the party's nod. As one former GOP lawmaker put it in a recent op-ed in the Hartford Courant, "No one was very enthused about Schlesinger, but he had the virtue of wanting the nomination."

Everyone was less enthused when it emerged that at one of the Connecticut casinos Schlesinger/Gold used to patronize, he had gotten a "Wampum card" — a kind of frequent flier bonus card issued to gamblers based on the volume of bets. Opinion dropped even further when, after he said he couldn't remember having any gambling debts, it came out that Schlesinger had paid more than $28,000 to settle lawsuits with two Atlantic City Casinos in 1990 and 1994. Schlesinger calls the gambling stories 20-year-old non-issues, and says he never broke any laws.

Now that Lieberman is planning to run as an independent, which splits the Democratic vote, there's talk among GOP election planners about finding someone who can put up a good showing. Connecticut has 671,656 Democrats, 449,727 Republicans and 844,433 other registered voters, meaning a strong GOP candidate could have a legitimate chance in a three-way race. "There would be a lot of interest of having a strong candidate run," says one Republican official in Washington. "If you split that thing three ways anything can happen."

Unfortunately for the Republicans, there is no way to remove Schlesinger from the ballot — he can only step down voluntarily. Connecticut's party chair and Republican governor both made it clear they wanted him to go, but Schlesinger is having none of it. "I'm not leaving the race under any circumstances," he says. Party operatives have even started comparing him to Katherine Harris, the unloved Florida Congresswoman whose seemingly hopeless insistence on running for the Senate has infuriated Republicans who see a chance to take a seat there slipping away thanks to her unpopularity.

But Schlesinger's intransigence hasn't stopped Republicans from dreaming. At the Republican National Committee meeting in Minneapolis last week, there was talk of how the Democratic split might be exploited. Says one GOP strategist who was at the Minneapolis meetings: "If Lieberman loses the primary and runs as an independent, there are people in Republican circles who want to raise money for him because they agree with him. Then the question is how much acrimony is left over from his excommunication."

Lieberman caucusing with the Republicans seems about as likely right now as Schlesinger dropping out. But you can still sense unease when talking to Democrats. Some have worried about what would happen if the popular Governor Jody Rell or centrist Republican House member Chris Shays were slotted in for Schlesinger. But both are in hot races important to the GOP, and neither is likely capable of taking out even a wounded Lieberman. One thing is clear: If the GOP has any plans to make Schlesinger disappear and pull a magic candidate out of the hat, the Dems haven't caught wind of it. "I have yet to see evidence that they've got a viable candidate to put on the ticket," says a Democratic strategist.