Lieberman prides himself on being even-tempered, and he’s using every weapon in his emotional arsenal in his struggle to appear unperturbed. Usually he is successful at putting on a good face, but sometimes the façade cracks. He laughed along as DeLauro and a few other friends at the Athenian tried to cheer him up and cheer him on, poking fun at Lamont’s use of the word poppycock in the debate, a term conveying his Wasp-millionaire upbringing. “Lamont’s a pup, momma’s little rich boy,” chimed in one Lieberman friend. But when Susan Voight, the New Haven Democratic chairwoman, brightly complimented the senator on a recent union endorsement, he couldn’t help but think of the endorsements he hasn’t gotten. “There are people who really disappoint you, you trusted them, you thought they were friends,” he said quietly. “Then there are the people who don’t forget you.”
There is an anything-can-happen feeling in Connecticut politics this summer. The state’s voters are reliably blue in presidential contests, but they’re quirky ticket-splitters in local politics. Connecticut has a hugely popular GOP governor, Jodi Rell, two Democratic and three GOP congressmen, and a Democratic majority in the state legislature. Of the state’s nearly 2 million registered voters, the largest proportion are maverick independents (844,000), followed by Democrats (671,000) and Republicans (450,000). Plus the state has never held such a hotly contested primary in the sleepy vacation month of August, and no one in either camp knows how many Democratic voters will bother to come out, much less mail in absentee ballots from Maine or Martha’s Vineyard.
“No public polling can give you a real sense of direction of this race,” says Kenneth Dautrich, professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. “It’s all hypothetical.” Not that no one’s paying attention to the polls: The latest from Quinnipiac University, released July 20, showed Lamont surging into the lead, with a 51 to 47 percent margin among likely Democratic primary voters. Dautrich cautions that the poll is based on a very small sample, but clearly Lamont has momentum on his side.
“For Joe, this is the perfect storm,” says one prominent Connecticut politician. “He’s on the wrong side of most Democrats on the big issue of the day, Iraq. And he’s spent years going around the country making speeches and not coming home. People would have put up with Joe on the war, but they needed to hear him.”
Lamont has taken advantage of such sentiments. His campaign manager, Tom Swan, sent him off to 50 small towns in Connecticut this winter, all the places that hadn’t seen Lieberman in years. It was a smart gambit, and at the Connecticut Democratic Convention in May, Lamont won 33 percent of the vote—he only needed 15 percent to get on the ballot—which gave him instant credibility. He’s since snagged endorsements from the National Organization for Women and the American Federation of Teachers.
Meanwhile, Lieberman is busily trying to make amends, going around the state bragging about the federal largesse he’s brought home, his kosher version of pork. “Joe serves on a major committee, Armed Services, that has a lot to do with the economy of the state,” says Connecticut’s other U.S. senator, Chris Dodd. “You don’t get that kind of seniority overnight. Do we give up all that for someone who would be the 100th senator?”
But it’s hard to rally the masses to support a long-serving politician with unpopular views, whereas insurgent campaigns are fueled by the excitement of going up against the Man. Lamont may be worth up to $300 million, but he’s still managed to come off as the grassroots, anti-Establishment candidate; his offices are full of college-age volunteers working the phones with antiwar zeal. “I see five times more lawn signs for Lamont than Lieberman,” says Scott McLean, chairman of political science at Quinnipiac. “The Lamont supporters are much more motivated to go to the polls.”
That is precisely the scenario that Lieberman fears, and it’s what pushed him to take the step of saying he’ll run as an independent if he loses in the primary. The Quinnipiac poll showed that although he’s endangered in the primary, Lieberman would win a three-way general election, with help from Republicans and independents, getting 51 percent of the total vote, compared with 27 percent for Lamont and 9 percent for the Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger.
Lieberman fretted for weeks about the decision to go independent. One adviser tried to talk Lieberman out of it, worried that the ploy might alienate rank-and-file Democrats who would perceive him as dissing his party. But his son and confidant Matt, 36, the headmaster of a Jewish day school in Atlanta, urged him to go for it. “My father’s in a fight,” Matt said, “and he’ll do what he needs to do.”