From the start of the Democratic state convention Friday night, there was something different from past gatherings of the faithful. Even U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, always a crowd favorite, could not work his usual magic with a speech nominating his senatorial colleague Joseph I. Lieberman for re-election. He sounded hackneyed compared to Annie Lamont's earnest seconding speech for her insurgent husband.
A Dodd tub-thumper on the virtues of being a Democrat is typically guaranteed to get the delegates in their seats and then on their feet. Not on Friday. His meandering address avoided getting to Lieberman until he had paid his respect to Democrats up and down the ballot and across the state. He even tipped his hat to challenger Ned Lamont. His nomination of Lieberman was more a tribute to diverse opinions in the party than a testimonial for Lieberman.
It fell flat but raised an essential question: Can Joe Lieberman win over Democrats by acknowledging the public's hostility to the war in Iraq but not altering his support for it? Friday night's balloting bodes ill for the humble but haughty strategy.
When Ned Lamont captured a staggering third of the 1,509 votes cast Friday, the green challenger's handlers were the most surprised camp in Hartford's Expo Center. The Lamont campaign got a late start this past winter and wondered as recently as a week ago if it would reach the 15 percent threshold required to get on the ballot without resorting to the laborious petition alternative. In the end, Lamont showed support across the state. (I was surprised too, and point out that a week ago I dismissed Lieberman consultant Roy Occhiogrosso's prediction that Lamont could get 30 to 40 percent of the vote.)
The Lieberman people seemed dispirited all night. His demonstrators waved and rubbed together curious-looking wiener-shaped balloons advising "Stick With Joe" as they made their way through the aisles in a short, obligatory demonstration to the tune of "Still the One." They became animated only when "Soul Man" came over the sound system, providing a cover to stop chanting and start dancing.
Discomfort turned to pain for the Lieberman campaign when the first town in the 1st Congressional District began the roll call: Barkhamsted cast its two votes for Lamont. The challenger received votes in town after town, sometimes one at a time, sometimes considerably more. When once Lieberman-friendly Windsor cast 13 of its 17 votes for Lamont, a roar of surprise filled the hall. Lamont would sail past the crucial 15 percent threshold before reaching his 4th Congressional District stronghold. Lieberman ought to be grateful it was not a secret ballot. If it had been, some of the 100 missing delegates might have found the backbone to vote.
Delegation leaders revealed more than they may have intended with the tributes to home that preceded the casting of votes. East Haddam reminded the crowd that it's Dodd's hometown and then cast three of its five votes for Lamont. Lebanon announced that it's Dodd's birthplace and tossed three of its four votes for Lamont. If anyone thinks saving the sub base (and one can't fail to mention 30,000 jobs) will rescue Lieberman in southeastern Connecticut, take a look at the roll call. Yes, Groton went for Lieberman 9-4, but neighboring New London stuck the shiv in with six of 11 for Lamont.
The darkest omens for Lieberman came near the end of the night when Southbury, nearly the last to vote, announced it was still waiting for a response to a winter invitation to Lieberman to meet. Until he does, Southbury cast five votes for Lamont, three abstentions and zero for Lieberman. One of the night's loudest cheers rang out.
By now, the Lieberman crowd was beaten, even with 65 percent of the vote. A curiosity in January, the Lamont campaign has become a growing army that could overthrow the incumbent in the Aug. 8 primary. For 90 minutes, party loyalists who have known Joe Lieberman for decades rose and turned their backs on him in favor of an engaging stranger.
The proceedings ended with the crowd ignoring another state party icon. When U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, bounced onto the stage to accept the nomination on Lieberman's behalf, the crowd beat a retreat to the hospitality tents outside. DeLauro addressed the backs of heads while history marched on to the state's first primary challenge of an incumbent U.S. senator.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state lawmaker. His column appears every Sunday. He can be reached at kfrennie @yahoo.com.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant