WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. John Edwards was the first national Democrat to congratulate anti-war candidate Ned Lamont on his primary victory over Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, but the phone call wasn't really about Connecticut.
Edwards is aggressively pursuing his party's presidential nomination, and his call was a reflection of Lamont's emergence as a liberal hero and nod to the new reality of this election year.
Anti-war fever is raging. Democrats, especially those on the left, are angry and aroused, and candidates ignore them at their peril.
"People want change," said Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a recent entrant in the 2008 presidential chase. "That's really what voters, I think, were saying more than anything else."
Dodd, who campaigned for Lieberman, warmly endorsed Lamont yesterday. He cautioned against reading too much into Tuesday's vote, then added: "Obviously, the Iraq war is a major issue and the ignition behind all of this."
Incandescent anger over the war and the failure by Democrats in Washington to effectively counter President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress are fueling the resurgence of the party's liberal wing, say politicians and analysts. Incumbents are on notice that they shouldn't take re-election for granted.
On the morning following Tuesday's primary, Democrats began taking sides after Lieberman submitted petitions to put his name on the November ballot as an independent. Most elected officials are backing the primary winner, as are state and national party committees.
Privately, Democrats said it would be a mistake to write off the 64-year-old senator, who has promised to vote with Democrats in organizing the Senate if he wins. Lieberman stands a reasonable chance of gaining re-election, they said, if he can maintain his support among independents and Republicans, who lack a viable candidate in the general election, and hold onto most of the Democrats who voted for him this week. A pre-primary poll last month showed him winning a three-way race.
In television interviews yesterday, Lieberman sought to portray those who helped defeat him as extremists. He singled out Rep. Maxine Waters, a liberal firebrand from Los Angeles who made repeated campaign appearances in Connecticut, as Lamont's "number one supporter."
"There's too much domination of our politics by the extremes of both parties," he said on CNN.
In a Michigan primary this week, conservative voters ousted a Republican incumbent accused of being too liberal. Freshman Rep. Joe Schwarz lost Tuesday to a conservative challenger who attacked his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.
Lieberman, rejecting Democratic pleas to abandon his independent candidacy, described it as "a cause" to keep the Democratic Party from being "taken over by people who are so far from the mainstream of American life that I fear we will not elect Democrats in the numbers that we should in the future."
Lamont, who might owe his victory margin to independents who switched to the Democratic Party to vote in the primary, said he was "proud of the fact we have tens of thousands of new Democrats who've gotten involved. ... I wanted them to have something to believe in."
The wealthy 52-year-old businessman, who has put about $4 million of his own money into the campaign, tried to avoid sharp criticism of Lieberman yesterday.
In a TV interview, Lamont did repeat a theme of his campaign, in tune with an anti-incumbent mood that could help Democrats regain a majority in Congress this year.
"Look," he said on CNN, "why does Washington have to be just for career politicians? [Voters] want somebody who's going to go down to Washington, D.C., and not be afraid to shake things up a little bit, speak on behalf of the common good, and solve some of these problems that the Bush administration just kicks the can down the road."
Divisions over Lieberman's candidacy are, in some respects, details of a larger picture: the growing influence of an energized Democratic left and its impact on the party's efforts to regain power in Washington.
Former Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas moderate who headed the Democratic Party's House campaign committee in the 1990s, said party leaders in Congress must "recognize that there is significant anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party, but [they cannot] go all the way over to the anti-war side and give Republicans an opportunity to paint Democrats as soft" on national defense and fighting terrorism.
Republicans lost no time trying to do just that. Attempting to drive the wedge deeper in the Democratic split, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said Lamont's victory was evidence that Democrats have become the party of "retreat and defeat." Lamont might have aided his critics' efforts to portray him as an extremist by letting the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson - two of his party's most polarizing figures - stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him at his primary night victory celebration.
Mehlman extended the criticism to other contests. In a Cleveland speech, he described Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic challenger to endangered Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, as "Ohio's answer to Ned Lamont." The Republican Party also posted a new Internet ad that sought to demonize Lamont by adding him to a Democratic rogues gallery that featured party Chairman Howard Dean and liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.
But liberals countered that the Connecticut vote was in line with the shifting views of most voters around the country. Robert Borosage of the Campaign For America's Future, a liberal advocacy group, said Lamont represents "a new moral center" in American politics. In an audio statement on his group's Web site, Borosage, a former Jackson campaign adviser, said Lamont's positions on ending the war in Iraq and spending more on education, health care and energy development at home are "policies that have the support of the vast majority of Americans in poll after poll."
Democrats and some independent analysts questioned whether the vote in Connecticut, one of the most liberal states in the nation, would have significant spillover effect on other contests this year. But they said the Lieberman-Lamont race had put a national spotlight on the pressures that Democratic presidential candidates are facing and on the party's continuing struggle to deal with the war.
Since before the 2003 invasion, Democrats have been unable to agree on a unified position on Iraq and are split between those demanding an immediate pullout and others who argue that leaving now would only make the Mideast situation worse.
But as the death toll in Iraq has grown, many of those eyeing the 2008 nomination have become increasingly critical of the U.S. involvement there.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 nominee, admitted last year that he had been wrong to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Edwards, his running mate, issued a public apology for voting in favor of the war.
Former Vice President Al Gore, who lost to Bush in 2000, has been his party's most prominent war foe, and there continues to be speculation that he would launch another try. Others have moved more slowly, apparently concluding that the more sharply they turn to the left, the tougher it would be to get back to the center, where the moderate swing votes that often decide elections are found.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrats' presumed favorite in 2008, has sought to position herself as a proponent of a strong national defense. One of the staunchest Democratic supporters of the war effort, she drew jeers from liberal activists two months ago when she spoke out against setting a date for a U.S. withdrawal.
Lieberman's defeat "puts a lot of pressure on Hillary Clinton," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist. "She hasn't disowned her vote [authorizing force against Iraq], unlike Kerry and John Edwards."
Ten days ago, Clinton quietly endorsed the demand of Democratic leaders in Congress that the United States begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq this year. Her re-election campaign Web site now features prominently her criticism of the war effort last week and her call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a move that won her praise from liberals such as Borosage, who praised her show of "backbone."
Clinton endorsed Lieberman but avoided the Connecticut campaign trail, promising to support the primary winner. Yesterday, she gave her backing to Lamont and said she would help him "in every way that I'm requested."