WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The Joe Lieberman television viewers saw on Thursday night in his debate with maverick challenger Ned Lamont was not the mellow, sleepy-voiced, decent, religiously observant man we used to know. No, this was Joe Lieberman, the savvy, battle-hardened, and very aggressive politician.
Face to face with his rival, Lieberman came across as a man absolutely determined to save his career in the Senate, a man who wasn't going to bother being genteel. He was throwing punches and seeming at least at one point to rattle his younger, less experienced foe.
Lieberman faces Lamont in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, but has started to gather signatures to get on the ballot as an independent if he falls short in that primary.
While Lamont did go on the offensive at points during the debate -- for example, accusing Lieberman of undermining fellow Democrats in Congress -- the Greenwich, Conn. millionaire was relatively tame compared to the super-aggressive and sometimes rude Lieberman, who interrupted Lamont a number of times during the 60-minute event.
After it ended and the two men had a 15-minute "cooling off" period, I approached Lamont, who asked me what I'd thought of the debate.
When I said the tone seemed quite different from the 2000 debate Lieberman had with vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, Lamont, seeming somewhat abashed, remarked, "That's what I should have said!" -- meaning he should have said it during the debate.
Lamont added, "When it's debating a Republican, it's like a tea party," but "when he's debating a Democrat he shows his passionate juices."
Lamont believed that he scored in the debate by challenging the incumbent on emergency contraception and on his support for the energy bill which President Bush signed in to law last year. Lamont seemed genuinely satisfied with his performance.
The face-off may raise questions in Connecticut voters' minds about why Lieberman seems to think it necessary to go after Lamont so aggressively. But for some voters that aggressiveness may be an admirable sign of a man determined to defend his beliefs.
Lieberman did raise questions -- not settled by Lamont either in the debate or in the post-debate "spin" session -- about why he has not released his federal and state tax returns as the senator has done.
Lamont replied in the debate, "We've submitted hundreds of pages of financial documents" -- but did not say if that includes his tax returns.
Lieberman said Lamont's lack of commitment to release his tax returns is "an insult" to Connecticut voters.
Lieberman seemed exasperated by Lamont -- almost as if he can't believe this rookie was in the same game with him.
"I've know George Bush, I've worked against George Bush, I've even run against George Bush, but, Ned, I'm not George Bush," Lieberman told his rival at the start of the event, turning to look at Lamont.
"So why don't you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me and the facts of my record?" Lieberman asked with a note of scorn in his voice.
The question is: is Lieberman's vote for the Iraq war the most significant fact in that record for most Connecticut voters? We'll find out on Aug 8.
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