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Lightning rod Lieberman tests party loyalties

If Sen. Joe Lieberman is on his way to becoming a kind of de facto Republican candidate for Senate in Connecticut, will this help or hurt his chances of winning a three-way race?
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You want to know how divisive the Iraq war is in American politics? Look no further than Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman, who launched an independent bid Tuesday night to keep his seat after losing to Ned Lamont in Connecticut's Democratic primary, is the center of attention for a diverse group of Democrats and Republicans.

Lamont loyalists and leading Republicans are united in forgetting all about Lieberman’s long and liberal voting record on gay rights, abortion, blocking oil drilling in the Arctic refuge and myriad other issues.

None of that matters; only Iraq does.

GOP leaders noted their disagreement with Lieberman on those other issues but otherwise were sympathetic to Lieberman, with one even sending him a check for his campaign on Wednesday.

Cheney mourns Lieberman loss
Vice President Dick Cheney grieved over Lieberman’s loss, calling it “an unfortunate and significant development,” and fretting about “the direction the (Democratic) party appears to be heading in when they, in effect, purge a man like Joe Lieberman.”

In an interview with Hardball’s Chris Matthews Wednesday, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman pointedly refused to say whether GOP donors should give money to the official Republican candidate in Connecticut, Alan Schlesinger, or to Lieberman.

“Let the Republican in Connecticut decide this important question,” Mehlman said.

Republican Mike McGavick, running against Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell in the state of Washington, said, “In support of Sen. Lieberman's campaign for civility, I wish him the best, and Gaelynn and I plan on contributing to his campaign.” McGavick called Lieberman a "victim of partisanship."

Since money is the fuel for Lieberman’s independent candidacy, it will be fascinating to watch how many other Republican donors follow McGavick to write checks to Lieberman’s re-election fund.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton asked Lieberman to “search his conscience and decide what is best for Connecticut and for the Democratic Party,” which raised the question: Hadn't he already done that Tuesday night?

Does this turn of events in the past 48 hours signify a re-alignment of the parties or is it just election-year opportunism, with GOP leaders taking advantage of Lieberman’s loss to portray Democrats as “fringe” and weak on national security?

If Lieberman is on his way to becoming a kind of de facto Republican candidate for Senate in Connecticut, will this help or hurt his chances of winning a three-way race?

The traditionalist Democrats in cities and towns such as Waterbury, Torrington, and East Haven, Connecticut, which went heavily for Lieberman on Tuesday, might be made queasy by  Lieberman getting too close to GOP donors.

Lamont ran to the left of Lieberman, condemned him for not filibustering Bush judicial nominee Sam Alito, and urged withdrawal of American troops from Iraq within a year.

Lieberman warning on Iraq
Lieberman’s flair for antagonizing anti-Iraq war activists, which is exactly what made him anathema to many Democrats, made him a hero to Republicans. When Lieberman said withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would lead to “the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 being able to claim victory in Iraq and going on, emboldened, to attack us again here at home,” the anti-war wing cringed and redoubled their efforts to defeat him.

Before extrapolating the lessons of Lamont to other races, consider the universe of those who voted on Tuesday: about 280,000 Democrats in one of the more Democratic-leaning states in the union. Lieberman fell 10,000 votes short on Tuesday.

The good news for Democrats: the Lamont-Lieberman battle led to 29,000 new Democratic registrations in the state (which has a total of about two million voters). If Lamont is helping grow the party, no matter what aid GOP donors might give Lieberman, it may not be enough.

Do like Lamont?
Will the Lamont template fit elsewhere?

Are all other incumbents, and especially supporters of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, now in jeopardy? Or just some of them?

The short answer is: some incumbents, even ones who voted for the Iraq war and for continued funding of it, are in trouble, while others will do just fine on Nov. 7. And the ones in jeopardy are at risk for a variety of reasons, not Iraq alone.

Consider some of the Democratic senators up for re-election and Democratic House members running for the Senate who supported the war and to some degree still do:

  • Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska
  • Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California

The anti-war wing of the Democratic Party, which rallied so enthusiastically to Lamont’s banner, has not launched insurgent anti-war challengers against any of these incumbents.

Why not?

One reason: Democrats are thinking strategically, not ideologically. They want 51 seats in the Senate. If that is their goal, it would, for example, be foolhardy for an anti-war Democrat to challenge Ben Nelson, for instance, a conservative Democrat in one of the most Republican states in the nation.

If ideological deviance is really what this election is about, then Nelson might have been targeted. But he wasn’t. The number 51 is more important than ideological purity.

In the morning-after version of events from Democratic leaders, the implication was that Lieberman was a proxy for Bush, therefore a Lieberman loss was reason to celebrate.

At a press conference Wednesday in Hartford at which he endorsed Lamont, Sen. Chris Dodd, D- Conn., Lieberman’s colleague of 20 years and, until Tuesday night, his ally, said, “People are trying to read into this race. It’s plainly about the Bush administration and its lack of leadership…. It was really about the Bush administration and its direction that people expressed themselves.”

There's a problem with this idea: Dodd is the very same person who gave a rousing argument on Sunday night in Connecticut that the election was really about Lieberman’s record of service to his state.

“Joe Lieberman has been a fighter on behalf of the people of our state and the people of this country,” Dodd told a crowd of supporters in East Haven, Conn.

Dodd especially praised Lieberman’s record on the environment and veterans benefits. “We don’t forget that in Connecticut, we’re going to remember that on Tuesday,” he said.

Dodd called him “a great Democrat, a good man, a very good United States senator.” It could all make great footage for a Lieberman TV ad this fall.

Who has more credibility, the Dodd of Sunday night or the Dodd of Wednesday morning?

Perhaps it does not matter now, since the die is cast: Democratic voters have chosen Lamont and must defeat Lieberman, no matter what they once might have thought of him.