WASHINGTON - Just five years ago, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut was praised for his cross-party appeal as the vice presidential candidate on a Democratic ticket that won the popular vote.
Now some in Mr. Lieberman's home state wonder if he qualifies as a Democrat at all.
In recent weeks, he has angered Democratic activists nationwide for expressing a willingness to work with President Bush to change Social Security. Critics say that is just his latest act of disloyalty to the party. He already had supported the war in Iraq and Mr. Bush's cabinet choices - and received a televised presidential smooch at the State of the Union address.
I think he has betrayed his constituency and he is leaning way too far to the right.
of New Haven, CT
"I think he has betrayed his constituency and he is leaning way too far to the right," said Marjorie Clark, a Web designer in New Haven and former supporter of Howard Dean's presidential bid who met Wednesday with about 30 other former Dean supporters and discussed a statewide "Dump Joe" effort. Others are trying to recruit a primary opponent while passing out bumper stickers that read "Anybody But Joe."
Their disappointment with Mr. Lieberman illustrates the difficulty of trying to be a centrist in an increasingly polarized political climate. Mr. Lieberman has gone from a possible Democratic heir apparent to a presidential primary footnote in 2004 to the conspicuous odd man out in his own Senate party caucus.
The senator, whose third term expires next year, laughs off talk of a challenge from the left. Polls show that more than two-thirds of Connecticut Democrats approve of his performance, and so do more than two-thirds of Connecticut Republicans. And Mr. Lieberman says he refuses to let partisanship interfere with solving real problems, including the solvency of Social Security.
"There is a whole attitude out there, 'Just say No!,' " he said. "In other words, 'Let the president sink with this proposal. We are winning.' But we are not winning because the victory here is to solve the Social Security problem."
Mr. Lieberman said he agreed with Mr. Bush that solvency gets harder to attain each year. But as for the president's proposal to divert part of the payroll tax to private retirement accounts, Mr. Lieberman said he had already rejected that idea before the 2000 election.
Mr. Lieberman has often aggravated other Democrats with Bush-friendly commentary (his Web site features a prominent picture of him and the president) and his habit of distancing himself from them on critical security and social issues.
Some lawmakers and senior party aides say that Mr. Lieberman remains in good standing. But they say that could change if he broke ranks and gave Mr. Bush a prominent Democratic ally on Social Security. "I think that Joe understands that, at this point in time, unity is the most important card Democrats have to play," said one Democratic senator, who like others, would only speak about Mr. Lieberman without being identified because of the sensitivity of his position. "He is sympathetic enough to that need that he is not going to bolt the reservation."
Republicans, however, see Mr. Lieberman as a potential partner and say Democrats are resorting to pressure tactics to hold members in line.
"The public is tired of that," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. "If this becomes 'You cannot work with Bush to solve Social Security,' then it will be a death blow to the Democratic Party. You will have more Republicans up here than we can handle."
Mr. Lieberman set off alarms within the party even before the State of the Union address. "This is an ongoing problem, and we'd be wise to deal with it," Mr. Lieberman told The Hartford Courant in January when asked about Social Security. "If we can figure out a way to help people through private accounts or something else, great."
Then the night of the speech, and the kiss, Mr. Lieberman said in a statement that preserving the program's benefits "may require we make some changes."
A week later, Mr. Lieberman praised Mr. Graham for trying to fashion a plan that could win bipartisan support. Soon after, an unnamed aide to Mr. Lieberman told CongressDaily, a Washington newsletter, that "he's still in a listening and learning stage and keeping an open mind" but had not taken a position.
That report sent the network of liberal Web logs into apoplexy. "Stop the Presses!" Joshua Micah Marshall wrote on his blog, Talking Points Memo. Mr. Marshall refers to Mr. Lieberman as the "dean of the faint-hearted faction" - a list of Democrats most likely to break with the party on Social Security.
"Call Richard Blumenthal!," Mr. Marshall wrote, referring to Connecticut's attorney general, whom activists had unsuccessfully tried to entice into a primary challenge.
Other liberal bloggers have been labeling Mr. Lieberman a DINO, for Democrat in Name Only, adapting a coinage conservatives often use for moderate Republicans. Several took up a campaign for a National Call Joe Lieberman Day, a rallying cry that made its way to the liberal radio program "Majority Report."
Connecticut newspapers covered the story, including Internet rumors that the actor Paul Newman, 80, might challenge Mr. Lieberman. (State Democratic officials called that ludicrous, and Mr. Lieberman said that Mr. Newman has been a supporter. Mr. Newman has not spoken publicly about it.)
Mr. Lieberman this week clarified his position on Social Security, telling his hometown paper, The New Haven Register, that he was "totally unconvinced" by the idea of creating private accounts, calling it "a very risky thing to do."
And on Thursday, Mr. Lieberman put his name on a letter signed by 42 Democratic senators urging the president "to publicly and unambiguously announce that you reject privatized accounts funded with Social Security dollars." A spokesman said his previous sympathetic references to private accounts were intended to mean in addition to Social Security.
Ms. Clark, the New Haven activist, said she believed the outcry in Connecticut forced Mr. Lieberman to retreat. "He backed off his previous position and that is a result of the pressure that the grass roots was applying to him, but we still need to find at least one candidate to go against him in the primary in 2006," she said.
Still, another Democratic senator who did not want to be identified said that given Mr. Lieberman's popularity at home, the agitation about a primary challenge was something less than a meaningful threat. "Is it serious? No?" the senator said. "Is it an annoyance? Yes."
Mr. Lieberman said he was not worried about the phone calls and blogs. He added that his views had not changed. "In part, those folks are angry with me because of my position on the war," he said. "I wish they would come to talk to me about what my position is on Social Security."
For anyone questioning his party affiliation, Mr. Lieberman said, "I am proud to be a member of the Democratic Party and I intend to stay that way."
But he did want to make one thing clear about that presidential kiss: "He gave it to me!"
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