CHICAGO -- Connecticut was the talk of Chicago this past weekend, at least as far as the assembled Democratic establishment was concerned. At their annual summer meeting in the Windy City, the party's national committee focused on some controversial 2008 business and on preparations for a hard-fought 2006 fall campaign season. But many members had their minds on the odd set of circumstances in Connecticut which have Republicans backing Democrats' own incumbent senator, Joe Lieberman, while the party's establishment supports nominee Ned Lamont.
So sure was the GOP that Lieberman's Senate seat would be out of their reach that they didn't try to prevent a virtual unknown with a problematic history of gambling from claiming their nomination. Since the primary and Lieberman's decision to seek re-election as an independent, Republicans have determined that they can gain more politically by supporting Lieberman and casting him as the victim of an anti-war, liberal-dominated Democratic party than they can gain from backing their own candidate, Alan Schlesinger. So uniform is their support for Lieberman that Schlesinger received only 4% in a recent poll.
With Republicans looking to make the race about Democrats' record on national security and Lieberman emboldened by the recent foiled terror plot in London, will the general election boil down to that key issue, or will it also turn on a host of domestic issues on which Democrats say Bush has failed?
Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000 when Lieberman was the vice-presidential nominee, says voters want someone to fight for their values in Washington and "stand up" to the GOP. "I still believe this election in Connecticut comes down to a choice between an incumbent senator who many believe no longer represents their views on certain issues and a newcomer who promises to steer, not just the party, but the country in a different direction," Brazile said.
Voters in Connecticut, as in many other states, are not only unhappy over Iraq, but are concerned about domestic issues like the rising costs of gasoline, health care and retirement. So pungent is the stench of disapproval from voters, that even GOP candidates this year are distancing themselves from Bush. But the first casualty of this problem could very well be Lieberman.
Ellen Camhi, chair of the Stamford Democratic City Committee, says that while Lieberman is "loved" and "respected" by many there, the "appearance" that he has supported Bush and the GOP has angered voters. "The people who didn't support him this time who still do like him were concerned with several issues including the war," Camhi said. "This is a very hard time for the country... When they disagree, [voters] are being very, very loud about it and they voiced their disagreement towards [Lieberman]," she added.
Lieberman fights 'Republican' label
But Ben Johnson, a former Clinton advisor and DNC member, thinks it's more than just a perception issue. "The reason Republicans are supporting him is because he's turned into a Republican. That's the only reason they would support him," Johnson said.
Lieberman is now seeking to clarify his position on the war and trying to put some distance between himself and the GOP. On Sunday, he called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
More than an anti-war vote
But, is it too little, too late? DNC press secretary Stacie Paxton says that while the war will play a role in races across the country, issues like rising gas prices, decreased funding for student loans, and the Administration's position on stem cell research will be on the minds of voters. "Fundamentally, people are looking for a new direction," Paxton said. "People are looking for a change and they see that [Democrats] are offering a new set of priorities" and that no matter what happens in Connecticut voters are "still eager for new leadership in the White House."
Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, says they are buoyed by the increased registration among Democrats as a result of the primary and are focused on supporting Lamont. "We are focusing on moving forward positively as Democrats and we're gonna work to make sure that Democrats win in this whole process," DiNardo said.
Brazile said that Lieberman's decision to run as an independent when Democratic voters had chosen Lamont put the party in a predicament. She adds that many candidates could choose to run as independents if they lose the Democratic nomination, but it doesn't mean they should. "If you lose, you lose," she said.
Huma Zaidi is an NBC News politics researcher, based in Washington, DC.