Lieberman's do-over.

By

On the first weekend in more than 40 years that Joe Lieberman did
not find himself comfortably ensconced in the bosom of the
Connecticut Democratic Party, he celebrated. The occasion wasn't
his estrangement from Nutmeg State Democrats, which stemmed from
his decision to run as an independent following his defeat by Ned
Lamont in the party primary five days earlier. Rather, it was his
daughter Rebecca's wedding in Manhattan.The wedding was a fitting symbol of the bad political judgment that
led to Lieberman's primary defeat. The blessed event was originally
scheduled for the previous weekend, two days before the primary--as
if it never occurred to anyone in the Lieberman camp that the
senator might draw a serious primary challenger and thus be busy
campaigning that Sunday. Once Lamont emerged as that serious
challenger, the wedding was moved to the weekend after the primary-
-as if it never occurred to anyone in the Lieberman camp that the
senator might actually lose, casting a bit of a pall over the
nuptials.

As it turned out, Lieberman had some cause for celebration despite
his primary loss. Odd though it may seem, the last week had in some
ways been the best seven days of Lieberman's campaign. The stretch
began the previous Sunday night, when Lieberman delivered the
speech his campaign advisers had been urging him to make for
months--criticizing President Bush for his handling of the war in
Iraq and attesting to the "heavy responsibility'' Lieberman felt,
as a supporter of the war, to end it quickly. Two days later, on
Election Day, Lieberman managed to exceed expectations, losing to
Lamont by 4 percentage points when polls had shown him trailing by
as much as 13 points five days earlier. That night, while conceding
defeat, Lieberman gave a rousing address reiterating his intention
to run as an "independent Democrat" and pledging himself to "a new
politics of unity and purpose"; Lamont, meanwhile, gave a clunker
of a victory speech that was made worse by the visual of Al
Sharpton standing directly behind him. The next day, Lieberman, not
Lamont, was the featured guest on the network morning shows. And,
on Thursday, when Lamont was taking a post-primary rest at his
Maine vacation home, Lieberman was stumping in Waterbury and
dominating Connecticut news coverage.

"It was critical for there not to be a vacuum," explains a Lieberman
adviser. "Instead, he came out and very confidently and strongly
explained his reasons for going on." Confirmation of that view
seemed to come on Saturday, courtesy of the first post-primary
Connecticut Senate poll: In a three-way general election race, it
showed Lieberman holding a 46 to 41 percent lead over Lamont (with
the Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger snagging an irrelevant 6
percent).

Lieberman's handling of his historic defeat has for now quieted the
talk-- which was rampant in the days leading up to the
primary--that he would have to abandon his independent bid. And, in
that respect, his independent candidacy has cleared its first
hurdle. As one Democratic strategist who works for a 2008
presidential hopeful puts it, "If the bottom doesn't fall out in the
first ten days, he's obviously got a shot. That was obviously the
question: Having lost, having become a pariah in his own party, is
he DOA? But it looks like he's got a pulse." Which leads to the
next obvious question: How strong a pulse is it?

The most basic challenge currently confronting Lieberman's campaign
is manpower--because, at the moment, it doesn't have much. In the
wake of his primary defeat, Lieberman fired almost all of his
senior campaign staff. The move obviously reflected the candidate's
displeasure with the way his campaign had been conducted; but it
also spared Lieberman the humiliation of having much of his staff
quit on him--which almost certainly would have happened, given the
fact that many of them could not afford to be associated with a
campaign that is now trying to defeat the rightful Democratic
nominee. Call it the "Scarlet J"--the sense among many Democratic
political professionals that working for Independent Joe could be
career suicide.

That sense, of course, will complicate Lieberman's efforts to field
a new campaign team--including the crucial hires of a pollster and
a media firm. "The complaint against Lieberman during the primary
was that he surrounded himself with a group of campaign staff who
were neophytes and weren't up to the task," says one former
Lieberman adviser. "But now he has a new problem: He recognizes the
task before him. The question is whether he can attract the staff
necessary to meet that challenge."

So far, it appears to be a mixed bag. His new communications
director, Dan Gerstein--who worked in Lieberman's Senate office and
on his ill-fated presidential campaign before starting his own
consulting business--has drawn largely enthusiastic reviews from
Lieberman supporters, who believe he brings an aggressive and
pugilistic style that was sorely missing from Lieberman's primary
campaign. Under Gerstein, the Lieberman campaign's communications
shop-- which seemed to wither under the fusillade of attacks from
liberal bloggers during the primary--will likely give as good as it
gets. But new campaign manager Sherry Brown--Lieberman's longtime
state director--is a controversial and unpopular figure in
Lieberman-land, where some specifically blame her for the senator's
primary defeat. (As state director, it was her job to prevent
Lieberman from having a primary challenger.)

One factor could make hiring a new campaign team easier: Lieberman
should be able to pay them top dollar. Despite his primary defeat,
fund-raising likely won't be a problem. In fact, his defeat may
actually help--in that it could spur Republican donors,
particularly those who like Lieberman's views on Israel, to
contribute to his campaign. The Lieberman campaign refuses to
divulge how much money it has raised since last Tuesday's primary
(Lieberman finished the primary campaign with

$2 million in his campaign treasury), but anecdotal reports suggest
it may be substantial. Sean Smith, who managed Lieberman's primary
campaign, says that, on his final day in Lieberman's employ, the
donations were pouring in. "The day after the primary, the phone
was ringing off the hook," Smith recalls. "And most of the people
calling were saying they wanted to contribute money."

Once Lieberman addresses his staff issues, he'll have to turn to
strategic ones. Specifically, he'll have to figure out what it
means to be an "independent Democrat" committed to a "politics of
unity and purpose." Chances are, it will mean deemphasizing the
former in favor of the latter. "He's not going to try and hide the
fact that he's a Democrat," says a Lieberman adviser. "But he's not
running in the Democratic primary--he's not going to be leading
with party affiliation." Or, as one former Lieberman adviser puts
it: "Now he's appealing to a different set of voters who may not
give a shit if he caucuses with the Democrats or considers himself
a Democrat."

At the same time, Lieberman will likely try to make an issue out of
Lamont's partisanship. "The liberal primary handcuffs are off and
he can talk about the full range of issues and highlight Lamont's
more extreme views," says the Lieberman adviser. "It's going to be
an interesting dance for [Lamont] to show that he's a mainstream
leader when he's got Al Sharpton standing over his shoulder."

But it's going to be an interesting dance for Lieberman, as well, if
he's going to try to paint a relatively mainstream Democrat like
Lamont as an extremist while at the same time maintaining his own
ties to the Democratic Party. Already, Lieberman took a bad step
when, two days after the primary and in the wake of the London
terrorist arrests, he said that Lamont's call for an immediate
withdrawal from Iraq "will be taken as a tremendous victory by the
same people who wanted to blow up these planes in the plot hatched
in England."

Gerstein defends Lieberman's comments: "He didn't politicize
national security. He talked about the implications of the position
that Ned Lamont is advocating." But other Lieberman supporters were
appalled. "It's beneath him to suggest that terrorists in London
are going to be encouraged by something Ned Lamont says," says one
prominent Democrat supporting Lieberman's independent bid. A
Democratic strategist is more pointed still: "What, he's going to
be more vicious attacking Ned Lamont than he was attacking Dick
Cheney during that terrible debate in 2000?"

Indeed, it's likely that, if Lieberman continues with the attacks on
Lamont as soft on defense and weak on terrorism, senior Democrats
will begin pressuring him--something they have so far refrained
from doing. "I think he'll get phone calls from [Connecticut
Senator Chris] Dodd and Bill Clinton at a minimum telling him that
what he's doing is not helpful to the party," says another
Democratic strategist. "I think he'd listen to them. If Al Gore were
to make that phone call, I don't think it would go over that
well."

Lieberman's independent candidacy could hurt the Democrats in more
concrete ways, too. In particular, Lieberman's continued candidacy
will likely provide ideological cover to the three congressional
Republicans in Connecticut who face stiff Democratic challenges and
who can burnish their "moderate" credentials by linking themselves
to Lieberman. (Embattled Representative Christopher Shays has
already endorsed Lieberman in the general.) Lieberman, meanwhile,
probably won't lift a finger to help the three Democratic
challengers since, after the primary, they all endorsed Lamont.
"They're going to stay out of our way," says former Connecticut
Democratic Party Chairman John Droney, who's supporting Lieberman's
independent campaign, "and we're going to stay out of theirs."

Which raises perhaps the most fundamental question about Lieberman's
independent bid: Will he still be a Democrat when it's over? To win
the election, Lieberman won't have to be much of one. As Droney
explains, "He needs to get 40 percent of Connecticut Democrats and
then 40 to 50 percent of everybody else." The endorsements Lamont
received after his primary victory from prominent Democrats, Droney
adds, likely won't have "any impact on the race. ... If that were
the case, every Democrat would have voted for Joe in the primary
because he had Bill Clinton."

But, if the Democratic establishment lining up behind Lamont doesn't
take an electoral toll on Lieberman, it could take a psychological
one. "I think he believes a lot of his colleagues are doing what
they have to do publicly, and he sort of expected it," says one
former Lieberman adviser. Still, "there's definitely been a growing
sense of hurt, since at least 2003 and his presidential campaign,
about the way parts of the party have treated him."

Others in Lieberman's circle think that the senator's sense of hurt
could grow--and that his Democratic identity could wither--even
more. "I know that, in his heart of hearts, he considers himself a
Democrat, but it'll be interesting to see how he feels when this is
all over and done with," says one Lieberman friend. "Over the next
three months, he's going to be embraced by Republicans and spurned
by the organized Democratic Party, including a lot of people he
considers to be his friends. It's hard to say how much that's going
to affect him, but he wouldn't be human if it didn't."

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