THE defeat of Joe Lieberman, the most hawkish senator in the Democratic party, by an anti-war political novice in a primary election in Connecticut last week was a spectacular coup for the netroots: the grassroots, anti-establishment, anti-war left that had mobilised opposition on the internet to the political grandee.
The same activists are now seeking to bend Senator Hillary Clinton to their anti-war side or face defeat in the Democratic presidential primaries. Her supporters are concerned that the jihadist left, galvanised by the victory of East Coast millionaire Ned Lamont, are on the rise in the Democratic party, starkly affecting its national electoral prospects.
Mike McCurry, White House press secretary during Bill Clintons presidency, said: The very idea of centrism is under attack now in the party. We have our own loony left too.
The former first lady, whose strategy for winning the presidency in 2008 has been based on persuading the electorate she is a genuine moderate and tough on national security, is watching her back warily.
Shes got to read the results with a certain anxiety, said McCurry, who remains close to the Clintons. There is a very angry Democratic base out there and its perilous for new Democrats. She is going to be figuring out a way to heavy-up the anti-Bush message.
Clinton faces a potentially deadly squeeze between Republicans, who are ramping up their charges that the Democrats are soft on terror in the wake of the airliner bombing plot, and her own party activists who have received all the proof they seek that untrammelled opposition to President George W Bush and the war in Iraq is an election winner.
If the New York senator is to win the Democratic nomination for president, she will need the support of her party base in the presidential primaries.
Flush with Liebermans defeat, Michael Moore, the left-wing film-maker, warned that the tumbrils would keep rolling. Im here to tell you, Moore warned Clinton, that you will never make it through the Democratic primaries unless you start strongly opposing the war.
Clinton quickly shored up her position on the left last week by telephoning Lamont to congratulate him on his victory and dropping $5,000 (£2,650) into his electoral coffers.
I am going to work for the Democratic nominee, she said. And I told him I would do whatever I can and whatever he wants me to do to help him in his election.
She also declared that there is a great deal of difference between her position on Iraq and Liebermans. Days before the primary vote, in a nifty use of her influence on the Senate armed services committee, she summoned Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and then demanded his resignation for mismanaging the war (a position Lieberman has not taken).
Clintons deft political manoeuvring prompted Markos Moulitsas, the dailykos.com blogger who is regarded as the lefts kingmaker, to put Clinton in his winners column last week. Moulitsas, however, has made no secret of his antipathy. She takes every position, so she stands for nothing thats why netroots dont like Hillary, he said.
The Connecticut result places Clinton in an ever more delicate spot. Lieberman, the partys vice-presidential nominee in 2000, intends to stand as independent Democrat in the November Senate elections and Clinton has not asked him to withdraw.
If Lieberman sticks to his guns and says, Enough of this polarisation and negativity, he might get some traction. It is an appealing message, McCurry observed. A number of the party hierarchy will . . . publicly embrace Lamont but privately give him a wink.
With his knack for providing crude but effective ideological clarity, Vice-President Dick Cheney warned last week that Liebermans defeat would encourage Al-Qaeda types.
Democrats have been spluttering that Cheney abused his prior knowledge of the airliner bombing arrests, but the news from London too late to be any use to Lieberman has thrown the spotlight on the fault-lines in American politics over national security.
Michael Barone, the author of The Almanac of American Politics, said the votes in the Connecticut primary revealed a gulf between blue-collar Democrats and the wealthy east coast liberals who rallied to Lamont.
In Stamford, where Joe Lieberman grew up the son of a liquor store owner, and where there are still sizable blue-collar and black communities, Mr Lieberman won with 55% of the vote, Barone said.
In next-door Greenwich, where Ned Lamont grew up as the scion of an investment banker family and where property prices are now among the highest in the nation, Mr Lamont won with 68% of the vote.
The class divide has potentially far-reaching consequences because blue-collar Democrats, like the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, tend to share the Republicans core values on strong national defence.
It was the loss of this group of voters at the end of the Vietnam war that led the Democratic party to lose every presidential election with the exception of the one-term Jimmy Carter from 1968 until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.
Clinton has a problem with blue-collar Democrats, who are inclined to look unfavourably on a woman candidate for president, whom they see as haughty. If she moves to the left to placate the netroots, their alienation could intensify.
McCurry is dismayed by the shift to the anti-war left. Ironically, we were gaining ground against Bush because we could argue that we were better able to protect the nation because he was making such a hash of it.
For now, few people in America have a good word to say about the conduct of the Iraq war, with severe consequences for the Republicans in the November elections.
There is also a powerful anti-incumbent mood that helped to sweep away Lieberman, a senator for 18 years. Combined with marked frustration with the setbacks in Iraq, it could give the Democrats victory against the Republicans in the House.
In 2008, however, the electorate will not be voting for Bush. There will be no incumbent to protest against. An Associated Press/Ipsos poll on Friday showed Bush with dismal approval ratings of 33% but the Republicans may be able to come up with a new candidate perceived as more competent.
According to Barone: The good news for the Republicans is that they have two candidates who are widely popular because people have already seen them under stress: John McCain in a prisoner of war camp (in Vietnam) and Rudy Giuliani on September 11.
In Connecticut, one of the most Democratic states, a poll taken by Rasmussenreports.com showed both McCain and Giuliani could beat Clinton on her ideological home territory.
© Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.