WASHINGTON — His name only came up once in passing during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, but in a way, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democratic presidential contender himself in 2004, was very much present.
Four years ago, it was Lieberman up on stage during the debates with John Edwards and the other Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Now he is playing an important off-stage supporting role in the struggle for the 2008 nomination.
His amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., urging President Bush to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization has become a litmus test for the Democratic contenders.
Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, joining 29 other Democrats and 47 Republicans as the Senate OK’d the non-binding statement.
Her vote triggered a fusillade of criticism from her rivals, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who portrayed the vote as something Bush might exploit to justify an attack on Iran.
“She shouldn’t have done it, because what she’s done is given this president with his history the first step in the authority to move (militarily) on Iran,” Edwards told reporters last Friday in Boone, Iowa.
He hammered at that theme again in Tuesday night’s debate, charging that the Kyl-Lieberman resolution “looks literally like it was written by the neo-cons…. It literally gave Bush and Cheney exactly what they wanted.”
Video: Edwards: Stand up So what do the measure’s sponsors, Kyl and Lieberman, think about their handiwork becoming the centerpiece of the Democratic presidential race?
Lieberman is 'troubled'
Adopting a tone of sorrow and bewilderment, not anger, Lieberman said Tuesday before the debate that his and Kyl’s measure “ought to be non-controversial.”
He said the use of the resolution as a litmus test for Democrats “troubles me, as it troubled me when the amendment came up on the floor of the Senate that 22 senators voted against it.”
Other political news of note
White House defends IRS handling, McConnell asserts 'culture of intimidation'
President Barack Obama's team emerged on Sunday to defend his handling of revelations that the IRS had targeted conservative groups for scrutiny, as senior Republicans conceded they lacked evidence — so far — that the president directed the abuses.
- Union of immigration enforcement officers to oppose Senate bill
- Ax hovers over food stamp program as costs grow
- Capping week of scandal management, Obama says focus remains on jobs
- 2016 notebook: Republicans try to dent Clinton's armor?
- White House defends IRS handling, McConnell asserts 'culture of intimidation'
Lieberman explained, “I thought it was so direct, factual, based on evidence the U.S. military has given us of the involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in training and equipping Iraqi extremists who… have been responsible for the killing of hundreds of American soldiers.”
Chuckling a bit, apparently in disbelief, Lieberman asked, “How can you vote against a request that the administration impose economic sanctions on a group that the U.S. military has presented us ample evidence is a terrorist group killing American soldiers?”
Clinton 'not in favor of doing nothing'
On Tuesday night, Clinton explained her vote by saying, “I’m not in favor of this rush to war, but I’m also not in favor of doing nothing. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and the Iran Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism.” Rate candidates' positions
Lieberman acknowledged Tuesday that some senators don’t trust Bush, but said, “At some point, we’ve got to get over this distrust and partisanship.”
Thirty Democratic senators voted for the Kyl-Lieberman measure and thus, to some degree, they have gotten over that “distrust and partisanship.”
But Edwards and Obama are more sensitively attuned to the views of Democratic primary voters than are senators who aren’t running for president.
Magnifying their differences with Clinton is what Edwards and Obama think they must do to appeal to primary electorate, especially since the voting records of the three Democrats are identical in most respects.
Meanwhile back in the ex-presidential contenders club, also known as the United States Senate, Lieberman noted Tuesday that “if this administration wants to take military action against Iran, it doesn’t need this Kyl-Lieberman amendment; it can use the general powers of the commander-in-chief.”
Lieberman contended that his amendment “is one of the last, best ways to avoid military action, because it puts economic pressure on the Iranians and tells them we mean business.”
“I’m not gunning for military conflict with Iran,” he said. “But if they keep killing our soldiers, you can’t just sit back and let it happen.”
At his campaign stop last Friday in Iowa, since no one in the audience brought up the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, Edwards himself brought it up.
'Rattling their sabers'
“Have all of you seen Bush and Cheney rattling their sabers about Iran? It makes you nervous, doesn’t it?” he told the crowd of about 200.
Many voices in the crowd said, “Yeah.”
“We’ve heard this before, right? We heard it in the lead up to (the invasion of) Iraq,” he said. “We have to stand up to this president; we can not give him an inch. Not when it comes to an issue of war.”
When informed of Edwards’s remarks, Lieberman said, “It’s exactly the opposite. I think Sen. Edwards totally misreads it. It’s unfair to criticize Sen. Clinton for this vote. It was a sensible vote, a vote to try to use all the economic power we have so that we don’t have to contemplate military action against Iran.”
Lieberman and Kyl both said Tuesday that they had responded to the concerns of some of their colleagues by removing a couple of clauses from the amendment which might be interpreted as belligerent.
They deleted a clause which said “it should be the policy of the United States to combat, contain, and roll back” the activities and influence of the Iranian regime inside Iraq.
“We removed that language, but it still wasn’t good enough,” fumed Kyl.
As for Edwards and those who voted ‘no’ on the Kyl-Lieberman measure, he said, “They mistrust George Bush more than they mistrust the Iranians. Isn’t that a sorry state of affairs?”
He wondered, “Do they not trust Joe Lieberman? Do they not trust me?”
Lieberman, who won re-election to the Senate last year as an independent Democrat after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, isn’t merely a spectator in the presidential fray.
As a Democratic senator and former Democratic vice presidential candidate, he meets the qualifications to be an ex officio “super-delegate” to the Democratic convention, with a guaranteed vote on the nominee.
Asked Tuesday whether he’ll endorse any candidate prior to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Lieberman said no and repeated his previous statement that he’ll wait until both parties have settled on their presumptive nominees before he makes his endorsement.
“This is the new-found independence I was given by Connecticut Democrats,” Lieberman said with a smile.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints