Why the Republicans Are Loving the Lieberman Loss

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MONIKA GRAFF / UPI / LANDOV

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman addresses supporters at his election headquarters after losing the Connecticut primary to Ned Lamont. Afterwards, Lieberman said he would run as an independent.

From Washington State to Missouri to Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates found themselves on the defensive Wednesday as the Republican Party worked ferociously at every level to try to use the primary defeat of Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut to portray the opposition as the party of weakness and isolation on national security and liberal leanings on domestic policy. Doleful Democrats bemoaned the irony: At a time when Republicans should be back on their heels because of chaos abroad and President Bush's unpopularity, the Democrats' rejection of a sensible, moralistic centrist has handed the GOP a weapon that could have vast ramifications for both the midterm elections of '06 and the big dance of '08.

At breakfast time, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was in Cleveland, decrying "an unfortunate embrace of isolationism, defeatism, and a blame- America-first attitude by national Democratic leaders at a time when retreating from the world is particularly dangerous." In early afternoon, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters in Crawford, Tex.: "It's a defining moment for the Democratic Party, whose national leaders now have made it clear that if you disagree with the extreme left in their party they're going to come after you." And an hour or so later, Vice President Cheney told wire-service reporters in a conference call: "It's an unfortunate development, I think, from the standpoint of the Democratic Party to see a man like Lieberman pushed aside because of his willingness to support an aggressive posture in terms of our national security strategy."

Karl Rove, White House senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, telephoned Lieberman but an aide said the call was personal in nature and did not include any offer of assistance with his independent bid against Tuesday night's victor, Ned Lamont of Greenwich.

One of the nip-and-tuck Senate races this year is in Missouri, and backers of Sen. Jim Talent are preparing an attack on his opponent, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, that is emblematic of the sort that will be seen all over the country within 24 hours. "Does Claire McCaskill support the wishes of the angry left by endorsing Ned Lamont's candidacy or will she support the man who was chosen by Al Gore as the Democrat's 2000 nominee for Vice President?" the National Republican Senatorial Committee asks in a statement that will force McCaskill to talk about messy party business instead of her favored issues of government accountability and affordable health care.

The NRSC blasted similar releases into 10 states.

House candidates planned a similar tack, and the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a memo this morning playing up the potential distraction of Lieberman's independent candidacy in a state where three GOP incumbents — Reps. Rob Simmons, Chris Shays and Nancy Johnson —are perennially endangered. The memo said Connecticut Democrats "will now continue to train their attention on vanquishing Senator Lieberman when their three House candidates need all the help the can get."

Some senior Democrats hoped Lieberman would bow out to avoid underscoring party divisions. For instance, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who is close to the Lamont family, will campaign for the Democratic nominee, an aide said.

But Dan Gerstein, a strategic communications consultant who is a senior adviser to Lieberman, tells TIME that the independent campaign — formally called "Connecticut for Lieberman" — is "full steam ahead" and that the Senator's remarks on election night were "a point-of-no-return speech." Lieberman was doing a series of interviews, mostly with Connecticut reporters, and plans some campaign stops on Thursday with Democrats who supported him and will continue to do so. Organizers shied away from calling it a kick-off tour, instead saying it is a new phase of the campaign. "He's committed," Gerstein said. "He feels liberated and he feels very strongly it's the right thing to do." Gerstein said the Senator is prepared to have some tough conversations with senior Democrats, perhaps even former President Bill Clinton, who may pressure him to withdraw. "He feels there's something much larger at stake," Gerstein said.

Gleeful Republicans across the country mocked their opponents as isolationist "Defeat-ocrats," as Mehlman put it, and even some Democratic officials said they can already imagine the ads in November races saying that Lieberman, once within a few hundred votes of being Vice President of the United States, is now "not liberal enough" for the Democratic Party. Republican officials, who have had little but bad news for months as Iraq festered and U.S. voters showed increasing signs of pessimism and discontent, said the Lamont victory gave them a chance to paint Democrats as a party that had become captive to the liberal wing symbolized by the MoveOn.org civic action group. Mary Matalin, an outside adviser to the White House, signaled the message when she said on Fox News Channel shortly after the polls closed: "MoveOn is not fringe. They're the heart of the party."

On television and in speeches in coming days, party officials and strategists plan to talk about their respect for Lieberman as a distinguished public servant and argue that Lamont's victory represents the end of the long tradition of strong-on-national-defense Democratic leaders in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. The GOP plans to try to broaden the argument beyond Connecticut, a liberal stronghold, and work to convince viewers and voters that Democratic nominees across the country have more in common with Michael Moore and liberal bloggers than Main Street America.

Mehlman, speaking to the City Club of Cleveland this morning, said the rejection of a well-liked Senator who was strong on national defense showed that Democratic candidates must embrace "defeatism and isolation" or "risk being purged" for their party. "For those of us who follow politics closely, who work in politics, and who know that there can be good and honest people on the other side of the political divide, it is a shame," he said. "It is also a sign of what the Democratic Party has become in the 21st century. ... The Democratic Party has chosen to nominate for Senate a leading proponent of the isolationist, defeatist, blame-America-first philosophy."

Trying to look on the bright side, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean issued a statement this morning pointing to strong turnout in the primaries and declaring that Democratic voters "are energized." The challenge for Dean, and his party, is to channel that energy in a direction that makes victory more likely, not less.