Bill Clinton came to praise three-term Sen. Joe Lieberman and most assuredly not to bash Ned Lamont, the anti-war challenger making a strong bid for the Democratic Senate nomination in the state's Aug. 8 primary.
"I don't have anything against Joe's opponent," Clinton said Monday as he campaigned to save his political ally of more than three decades from defeat. "He seems like a perfectly nice man. He's got every right to run and he's waged a vigorous campaign."
Clinton's comments underscored the dilemma facing many party leaders as they watch Lieberman struggle for renomination against an opponent who says he would stand up to President Bush instead of standing with him.
While they support the incumbent, they also know the most recent poll shows the race a toss- up, and he could lose. And that would make Lamont the party's nominee - and theirs - in the fall, even if Lieberman goes ahead with plans to run as an independent.
Clinton drew applause louder than Lieberman did from the capacity crowd at an ornate downtown theater, a reminder of the enduring support he has from party loyalists even though he has been out of office for nearly six years.
He praised Lieberman for supporting steps to strengthen the economy, the environment and more. "Yeah, Joe Lieberman is a friend of mine. I love him and he's in a tough race," Clinton said.
On his political rescue mission, the former president made no mention of Iraq until near the end of his remarks. "The pink elephant in the living room," he called the conflict that has divided Democrats as it has grown increasingly unpopular nationally.
Democrats "don't agree on everything. We don't agree on Iraq," Clinton said, urging Democrats to put the issue aside and send Lieberman on his way to a new Senate term.
"The real issue is, whether you were for it or against it, what are we going to do now. And let me tell you something: No Democrat is responsible for the mistakes that have been made since the fall of Saddam Hussein that have brought us to this point."
Lieberman has been one of the most vocal Democratic supporters of the Iraq war in the Senate, and he recently voted against two proposals to begin winding down the American military commitment.
Lamont laid out a different view not long after Clinton spoke, at a campaign appearance of his own.
"Staying the course is not a winning strategy in Iraq," he told supporters at a fundraiser. He said the United States is not going to be able to bring about "democracy at the barrel of a gun."
A millionaire businessman who has taught in high school, he drew applause when he said, "How come we can afford to spend $250 million a day in Iraq and we can't keep that school open past 2:30 in the afternoon."
Clinton's appearance was merely the most visible sign of political distress on Lieberman's part, six years after he was his party's vice presidential candidate.
The senator's campaign recently brought in a new official to orchestrate a get-out-the-vote program on primary day, tacitly conceding it was ill-prepared for Lamont's challenge.
And Lieberman has campaigned with other prominent Democrats in hopes of renewing his ties to Democratic voters. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a strong opponent of the Iraq war, was at his side for a morning of campaigning before Clinton's arrival.
She praised Lieberman's record on other issues of importance to Democrats. "If you want to meet a leader on the environment, a leader on all the difficult choice issues, you got one here," she said at a campaign stop at a candy store.