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Support for a Challenger to Longtime Sen. Joe Lieberman Indicates Tensions Over Iraq War
Published on Saturday, May 27, 2006 by the Los Angeles Times
Strong Signs of Rift Among Democrats
Support for a Challenger to Longtime Sen. Joe Lieberman Indicates Tensions Over Iraq War
by Ronald Brownstein
 

WASHINGTON — The liberal challenge to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) escalated Friday when the political arm of MoveOn.org, an influential online advocacy group, endorsed the political newcomer opposing his bid for renomination.

Gaining the support of MoveOn's political action committee was Ned Lamont, a businessman who wants to unseat Lieberman largely because of the veteran lawmaker's staunch support for the war in Iraq.


While the online poll was being conducted, Lieberman was at a Washington dinner receiving an award from the Committee on the Present Danger, the hawkish foreign policy group whose membership includes prominent conservatives and leading supporters in both parties of the Iraq war.

The group announced its backing after polling MoveOn's members in Connecticut.

MoveOn has emerged as a leading voice for left-leaning activists, and the endorsement marks the first time that its PAC has sought to unseat an incumbent Democratic senator.

"Lamont's message resonated with members who want a senator who will stand up to President Bush on key issues and represent the views of most people in Connecticut," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the MoveOn PAC.

With the endorsement, the group will seek to raise money and generate volunteers for Lamont among MoveOn's 3.2 million members nationwide.

Lamont earlier this week gained an endorsement from Democracy for America, a liberal grass-roots group that Howard Dean established as his campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination foundered. Dean gave up his leadership role when he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee last year, but the group is headed by his brother, Jim Dean.

Lamont's candidacy also has become a priority for many liberal websites, such as Daily Kos — whose founder, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, recently appeared in one of Lamont's television advertisements.

With the involvement of these groups, the face-off between Lieberman and Lamont in Connecticut's Aug. 8 primary has emerged as the focal point of tensions between Democratic liberals and centrists over the party's direction.

"This is a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "It will have repercussions for the 2008 presidential campaign and whether centrists will feel comfortable within the Democratic Party."

Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, long had been considered politically invulnerable in his home state. First elected to his Senate seat in 1988, he remains the favorite to win the primary. But the same polls that show Lieberman leading the race also reveal widespread discontent among Connecticut Democrats over Iraq — the sentiment Lamont hopes will propel him to victory.

Earlier this month, Lamont won support from 33% of the delegates to the state Democratic convention, enough to win him a spot on the primary ballot.

The poll of MoveOn's Connecticut members was conducted during a 24-hour period that concluded Friday morning. Both Lieberman and Lamont were invited to make their case through e-mails, but Lieberman chose not to send one.

Pariser said that of the 5,500 people participating in the poll, 85% of them voted to endorse Lamont.

Lieberman campaign aides dismissed the results as insignificant. "Just as we expected, Joe Lieberman won neither the endorsement of MoveOn.Org nor was chosen the next 'American Idol,' " said Marion Steinfels, a campaign spokesperson.

Some analysts, however, believe the endorsement could strengthen Lamont.

MoveOn's PAC has proved capable of raising substantial sums from its members — it collected about $800,000 last year for Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a strong critic of the Iraq war, in just a few days.

Lamont's credibility as a candidate also should benefit from MoveOn's stamp of approval, said Scott McLean, chairman of the political science department at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

"Getting 33% at the convention is really impressive, but [Friday's endorsement] is even bigger because it shows the grass-roots and money [donors] … that there is something behind Ned Lamont," McLean said. "It's big. It's huge."

Wittmann said that if Lamont and his allies succeed in ousting Lieberman, "it would be devastating to the Democratic Party" by suggesting that centrists are no longer welcome.

"This shows that [MoveOn] is trying to precipitate a civil war within the party," he said.

Pariser dismissed that suggestion. "We think primaries are a healthy part of the democratic process for a reason — so voters can choose who represents them rather than the chattering class of Beltway insiders," he said. "And if supporters of the Iraq war — Republicans and some Democrats — are in electoral trouble, it's probably because a majority of the people in this country think it was a disastrous mistake."

Lieberman has responded to Lamont's challenge by stressing his support for traditional Democratic positions on issues such as the environment and abortion rights.

But McLean said Lieberman has been hurt by having "a tin ear" for the opinions of liberal Connecticut Democrats deeply disaffected with Bush and the Iraq war.

Thursday night may have been a case in point.

While the online poll was being conducted, Lieberman was at a Washington dinner receiving an award from the Committee on the Present Danger, the hawkish foreign policy group whose membership includes prominent conservatives and leading supporters in both parties of the Iraq war.

© Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

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