Attacks stun Lieberman


WASHINGTON -- On his increasingly difficult path to re-election, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman keeps getting kissed. And not lovingly.

Kisses mock Lieberman, the incumbent Democrat, all over Connecticut - on signs, on buttons, even on giant parade floats.

They commemorate the one President Bush appeared to plant on his cheek after last year's State of the Union address, a symbol, in the eyes of Lieberman's liberal critics, of an unforgivable alliance in support of the Iraq war.

"It's a 'Godfather' kiss - one of those kisses that says, 'I own you,'" said Edward Anderson, a supporter of Lieberman's Democratic primary opponent, Ned Lamont, who was distributing "kiss" buttons outside a Lieberman campaign event in Stamford, Conn., on Monday.

In an interview in his Senate office, Lieberman said that he recalled only a hug, not a kiss, but he acknowledged, "There has been some doubt, based on the post-game films."

Asked whether there had been any subsequent kisses with the president, he said, "None that I'm prepared to talk about," and chuckled.

Under fire

Despite his amused disposition, these are down days for Lieberman, a former Democratic nominee for vice president who, six years later, finds himself fighting to save his career amid a strenuous effort by antiwar activists in his party to dislodge him.

Friends say that his predicament has left Lieberman nervous, dispirited and angry, a portrait of a politician stunned to face opponents as passionate in their loathing of his principles as he is proud of them.

He has served 18 years in the Senate, where he has prided himself as being moderate, collegial and willing to work with Republicans.

He has built the kind of seniority that often leads lawmakers to consider themselves invulnerable.

Yet he suddenly finds himself in a nasty tangle with a wing of his party that has adopted a bloody-knuckle approach to politics and wants to finish him off in Connecticut's primary on Aug. 8.

Lieberman's physical posture is more hunched than usual these days, his normally deep and lulling cadences more clipped.

"I should probably cut off this line of questioning," he said in a discussion relating to his recent announcement that he would run as an independent if he did not get the Democratic nomination. "I'm focused on the primary."

Lamont and Lieberman's critics on the left say he is out of touch with his party, especially but not solely on Iraq, and cannot be trusted to advance what they say are core progressive values.

Supposed sins

"It's been just one thing after another with Lieberman," said Anderson, of New Haven, who went on to recite Lieberman's supposed sins against the Democratic Party.

They included his support for the nomination of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court and his on-air chumminess with Sean Hannity, the conservative co-host of Hannity & Colmes on Fox News.

"This has all been in the works for a long time," he said, referring to the intraparty opposition to Lieberman.

Lieberman, who seemed slow to recognize the seriousness of Lamont's challenge, also appears taken aback by the ferocity of the onslaught, particularly from liberal blogs.

To Lieberman's camp, the bloggers embody what his longtime friend Lanny Davis calls "the demonizing, hating, virulent, character-assassinating left of the Democratic Party."

Lieberman began, "Some of the vituperations, some of the extremity of the language and anger," before his voice trailed off. He paused for a second and started again: "They're describing a person who is not me." Colleagues have approached him on the Senate floor to console him, asking how he is holding up, as if he were sick or experiencing some trauma.

Lieberman's allies discuss him these days with a tinge of sadness. "He's being subjected to the hate machine like Bill Clinton and George Bush have," said Davis, a former special counsel to Clinton. "Joe Lieberman has never been subjected to this before."

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, one of Lieberman's closest friends in the Senate, called him "one of the most decent men I have ever known" and simply shook his head when asked about his friend's situation.

"I hesitate to say anything nice about him, for fear that it would be used against him," McCain said. "And that's a terrible commentary on the state of politics and the political climate today."

In his Senate career, Lieberman has been a creature of the political center, ill-suited to the partisan passions that have come to pervade primary campaigns.

He was far more effective as a general election candidate for vice president in 2000 than he was in the campaign he waged for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, in which he did not come close to winning any primaries.

'Partisan poison'

"The anti's tend to come out more in the primaries," Lieberman said.

"There's a culture of partisan poison in both parties. It hurts. And it's part of what's being reflected in this primary."

Lieberman said he was not surprised that he had a primary challenge, given his support for the war in Iraq and the fervor against it among Democrats.

He said he did not mind being booed, as he was at a Fourth of July parade in Willimantic, Conn., where Lamont supporters built a float with a papier-mache rendering of Lieberman and Bush's kiss.

But he said he was upset by the fever pitch of invective that he said the campaign against him had featured. In that same parade, Lieberman was heckled as a "warmonger," a "Bush lover" and a "turncoat," among other things.

Shrinking lead

Lieberman also worries about how seemingly effective the assaults have been. His once-comfortable lead over Lamont has shrunk considerably, to a point that he felt it necessary to hedge his bets with his fallback independent candidacy.

Lieberman has also encountered a peculiar brand of stigma from his Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

Several of them say they will support their "good friend" in the primary.

But only a smattering say they will support Lieberman no matter what happens Aug. 8. The rest have either avoided the question ("You never saw senators run for the elevators so fast," David Lightman of The Hartford Courant said on Reliable Sources on CNN) or vowed to support the primary winner, even if it is Lamont, whom most of them have never met.

"I'm going to wait and see what happens in the primary, so hopefully I won't have to make this decision," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, voicing a typical response.

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