The Primary Message

President Bush's standing among Connecticut Democrats is bad news for Joe Lieberman.

STAMFORD, Conn.—The August 8 Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut is supposed to be a one-issue contest. But what that issue will be was at the center of the July 6 debate between Sen. Joe Lieberman and his challenger, Ned Lamont.

"I know George Bush. I've worked against George Bush. I've even run against George Bush," Lieberman said. "But, Ned, I'm not George Bush. So why don't you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me and the facts of my record?"

Lamont's response? "Ned Lamont is going to stand up and speak on behalf of Democrats.... We're not going to cozy up to the Bush agenda. We're not going to provide a lot of cover for the Bush agenda."

Lieberman is a third-term senator who was on the Democratic national ticket in 2000. Now he's facing a tough fight for re-nomination. Why? One word: Iraq. Lieberman wrote in The Wall Street Journal last November, "What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will and, in the famous phrase, to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory." That article enraged Democrats across the country and helped draw a primary challenger into the race.

Each candidate tried to use the July 6 debate to frame the race. For challenger Lamont, the issue is Iraq. "Senator Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way when we should have been asking the tough questions," Lamont said. Lieberman's response was dismissive: "He's a single-issue candidate who's applying a litmus test to me."

For Lieberman, the issue is himself. In his closing statement, the incumbent said, "The people of Connecticut and I have known each other for a long time. We have laughed and cried together. We prayed and dreamed together. And, most of all, we have worked together."

Fourth District congressional candidate Diane Farrell, a Democrat, disagrees with Lieberman on Iraq, but says she will vote for him in the primary out of personal loyalty. "We have known each other a very long time; we respectfully agree to disagree with one another," she said last week.

It's not clear how many Democrats feel that way. "We don't know if this is a referendum on Iraq or a referendum on Joe Lieberman," David Lightman, Washington bureau chief of The Hartford Courant, said after the debate. Lieberman is running in a primary, and primaries are about sending a message. "I think what's hurting Lieberman the most is the fact that a lot of Democrats think he's not Democratic enough," Lightman said.

Primary voters are not voting on whether to re-elect an incumbent. They're voting to define the party's message. "The senator has seniority," Lamont acknowledged, "but when you use seniority on the wrong side of issues that people care about, that's a problem."

Here's how Lieberman's summed up his campaign: "What I'm saying to the people of Connecticut [is], I can do more for you and your families." His challenger's response? "Senator, this is not about anybody's career. This election is about the people." It's not about you, in other words; it's about us, the Democratic Party.

November is about whether to re-elect the incumbent. That's when Lieberman can count on getting the support of the 4th District's representative, Christopher Shays, who said last week, "I'm going to vote for him. Absolutely." But Shays is a Republican. He can't vote in the Democratic primary.

That's why Lieberman says he will run in November even if he loses in the primary. The November election will be framed his way—about his service, not about the Democratic Party's message. That's a race he apparently can win.

A Quinnipiac University poll taken early last month showed Lamont gaining on Lieberman in the Democratic primary. The same poll showed Lieberman getting 56 percent if he ran as an independent in the general election against Democrat Lamont (18 percent) and Republican Alan Schlesinger (8 percent).

Lieberman's general election support exactly matches his job-approval rating in Connecticut, 56 percent. What threatens Lieberman is President Bush's job-approval rating in the state, which is only 24 percent. Bush's job-approval rating among Connecticut Democrats? Five percent.