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Clinton challenger struggles for recognition

Anti-war Democrat Jonathan Tasini's longshot bid to oust New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should be riding a crest of momentum now.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Anti-war Democrat Jonathan Tasini's longshot bid to oust New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should be riding a crest of momentum now.

Just weeks ago in nearby Connecticut, another anti-war upstart, Ned Lamont, stunned the political world, defeating Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary. Flush with victory, liberal activists and bloggers who helped drive Lamont's candidacy sought out other prey.

But with less than three weeks to New York's Sept. 12 primary, Tasini remains unknown to most Democratic voters and overpowered by Clinton's celebrity and vast fundraising edge. Bloggers have remained largely on the sidelines, choosing to wage their anti-war insurgency elsewhere.

Ned Lamont wannabe
"The sole difference between myself and Ned Lamont is $4 million," Tasini said in an interview, referring to the personal fortune Lamont, a wealthy businessman, spent to defeat Lieberman. "It's not a criticism of Ned at all, but it's a reflection of how much money has corrupted our political system."

A bespectacled, well-spoken former labor organizer, Tasini, 49, has made Clinton's 2002 Senate vote authorizing the Iraq war the centerpiece of his campaign. His platform also includes support for gay marriage and a single-payer health care system and opposition to free-trade agreements such as NAFTA.

"Tens of thousands of human beings died because Hillary Clinton cast a vote for the war," Tasini said. "Based on that vote alone, Hillary Clinton shouldn't be re-elected."

That kind of rhetoric has irked the Clinton camp, even as Clinton herself has publicly ignored Tasini's candidacy.

"Mr. Tasini's increasingly shrill and negative campaign never caught on because voters know that Sen. Clinton has been a leader in standing up to the Bush administration," Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson said.

Clinton was one of 29 Senate Democrats who voted to give President Bush the authority to use military force to topple Saddam Hussein, and since then she's refused to recant her vote even as public opinion has soured on the conflict.

But unlike Lieberman, whose outspoken support for the war and perceived closeness to Bush angered many Connecticut Democrats, Clinton has been deeply critical of the administration's conduct of the war. In a televised Senate hearing earlier this month, she castigated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for conducting a "failed policy" in Iraq and later called for his resignation.

Tasini says he was unimpressed with Clinton's exchange with Rumsfeld, calling it a "complete stage-managed show."

Polls and money
Polls continue to show that voters' disapproval of the war doesn't necessarily alter their opinion of Clinton, a Democratic Party superstar and likely 2008 presidential candidate.

A Marist Poll released this week found that 68 percent of Democratic voters say the Iraq war should be a "major" campaign issue this fall, and 64 percent said they would be inclined to vote for a candidate who opposes the war. But the same poll found Clinton leading Tasini, 80 percent to 15 percent.

Clinton also is sitting on $22 million, while Tasini has raised little more than $200,000 - a fraction of what it would cost to buy the statewide television advertising he'd need to boost his visibility. So far, Clinton has sidestepped calls to debate Tasini, despite a string of newspaper editorials urging her to do so.

Debates uncertain
Asked in Rochester, N.Y., this week about a debate, Clinton delivered her stock reply: "We're just going to see how the campaign develops."

Tasini, who is Jewish and lived in Israel for several years, angered many activists in New York's politically influential Jewish community earlier this month when he criticized Israel's conduct during its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Clinton has shrewdly managed the Lieberman-Lamont outcome as if to offset a potential anti-war, pro-Tasini movement.

While professing personal loyalty to Lieberman - a friend since their days together at Yale Law School - she has endorsed Lamont and given money and other promises of support. Clinton and Lamont met Friday at Clinton's home in Chappaqua to discuss ways she could help his campaign.