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Cuppa Joe

Can Lieberman Survive

Connecticut may have fewer natural wonders than, say, New Jersey, but what it lacks in physical beauty it more than makes up for in diners. The Nutmeg State has an abundance of them, wherein residents can feast on hearty fare like scrambled eggs, mac and cheese, and, lately, Joe Lieberman. As he fights for his political life against millionaire cable TV executive Ned Lamont, Lieberman has evidently decided to make his last stand in the humble greasy spoon. And so, one recent morning, Connecticut's junior senator was in the small southwestern town of Ansonia at Millie's II--one of five diners he would visit that day--laboring to convince its patrons to send him back to Washington for a fourth term.

Lieberman does not have the physical gifts of a natural politician. With his slight frame and oddly hollow voice, he has a hard time commanding a room. But, as he methodically made his way around the diner, he did a fairly convincing imitation of the backslapping, glad-handing pol he has never been. Standing at the lunch counter, Lieberman reminded patrons that Ansonia and the surrounding towns had provided him with his margin of victory in his first Senate race in 1988. "I really hope you're able do it again," he said. Squeezing into a booth, he patiently listened to a woman as she told him her idea for having the runner- up in the presidential race automatically become vice president. "There's too much partisanship," he eventually said, seconding her point without quite endorsing her proposal. And, when a large man chomping on an unlit stogie--a local character who goes by the name "Bobby Z"--came up to Lieberman and declared, "You shouldn't have to be putting up with this, `f' them!" the senator didn't blanch. Instead, he smiled broadly and gave Bobby Z a hug. As Lieberman exited Millie's II, the diners gave him a resounding cheer. It seemed that, at the very least, he'd sewn up the support of the breakfast crowd.

The question facing Lieberman, though, is whether this performance was a case of too little too late. As he heads toward his August 8 Democratic primary showdown with Lamont, the incumbent faces the very real prospect of defeat. Public polls have showed Lieberman holding an ever-shrinking lead; and, according to a source, one unpublished independent poll actually had Lieberman trailing Lamont, albeit within the poll's margin of error. Indeed, Lieberman is in such jeopardy that, in early July, he announced that, should he lose the primary, he will run as an Independent in November's general election.

If Lieberman does lose the Democratic primary, his defeat will mean many things to many people. Some will view it as a resounding sign of the Democratic Party's anger over the Iraq war, of which Lieberman has been a prominent proponent. Others will contend that it is a concrete manifestation of the power of liberal bloggers, many of whom have made opposing Lieberman and supporting Lamont their raison d'etre. And some will even go so far as to argue that it spells the end of the Democratic Party as we know it--which, depending on who's doing the arguing, will be viewed as either a good or a bad thing.

But, while all these interpretations may be true to some degree, the fundamental reason for Lieberman's travails--a reason that a number of the senator's friends and supporters are increasingly willing to share--is Lieberman himself. Despite efforts to imbue the senator's troubles with greater significance, in reality they are largely the result of his and his reelection campaign's own missteps--from his behavior prior to the race to his belated realization of the serious challenge Lamont posed to his continued insistence on doing things that served to anger Democratic voters. "I think it's a mess," one Lieberman friend says of the campaign. "And, frankly, I think much of the blame lies with Joe.... It's almost like he goes out of his way sometimes to make a difficult situation more difficult."

THE STORY OF Lieberman's undoing begins, most of his friends and supporters agree, with his illfated 2004 presidential campaign. Thanks to his well- received performance as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, many people--including, apparently, Lieberman himself--believed him to be the 2004 front-runner. But his candidacy quickly foundered, largely because of the war. He was embarrassed when Gore endorsed Howard Dean, whom Lieberman had singled out for particularly harsh criticism, and it wasn't long before his campaign's slogan of "Joementum" became an unintentional punch line. After failing to win nine primary contests, Lieberman withdrew from the race.

Those around Lieberman believe that his defeat took a personal toll. "Anybody who runs for president and loses, it changes you," says a former senior adviser. "You put yourself out there, and there are people who had always been there for you, and you go to them, and all of a sudden they don't show up. It changes your perception of the reality of politics."

Lieberman's hangover from his 2004 flameout manifested itself in a couple of ways. First, there was his deteriorating relationship with Connecticut. Like any long-serving senator, Lieberman had become increasingly distant from the state he represents--particularly in recent years, when he was primarily focused on national politics. Lieberman hardly campaigned for his reelection to the Senate in 2000, for instance, spending most of his time running for vice president. And, after losing his presidential race, Lieberman, rather than plunging back into Connecticut politics, seemed inclined to retreat from politics altogether. Although he still worked to win his state earmarks--and successfully fought to keep the U.S. Navy's submarine base in New London open-- he didn't engage in the hand-holding and temperature-taking that is important in a state where the remnants of a Democratic Party machine hold considerable sway. A Connecticut supporter of Lieberman's puts it bluntly: "Look, he went national and he stopped paying attention to people in Connecticut," the supporter says. "If the relationships that Joe had throughout the state were good twelve months ago, those people would have gone to Lamont and said, `You are not running.' But they didn't do that."

More significant than his problems with his home state, Lieberman's 2004 defeat caused him problems with his party. "I'm a Truman-Kennedy-Clinton Democrat, which is progressive domestically and strong on foreign and defense policy," Lieberman told me. "I want to give voice to the Truman-Kennedy-Clinton tradition within the party, which I think is receding, at least at the activist level, because of the hatred toward President Bush and the strong opposition to the war." A former adviser frames the same point in a more negative way: "The [2004 presidential campaign] experience left him very embittered. He was very chastened by the response he got. I think, for the last couple of years, he's been feeling like, `Where's the room for me in this party?' I think it may have clouded his judgment."

That judgment became particularly clouded on Iraq. While many of his friends and supporters admire Lieberman's willingness to take a principled stand in supporting the war--even if they themselves disagree with that stand--they cannot understand why he hasn't been more critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war. "You can be for the war and be critical of it, and he lost the second half of the equation," says one former adviser. "Look at Biden. Here's somebody who voted for the war, continues to say that we should be there, but is absolutely critical of Bush and how he handled it. And so, as a result, he gets a pass. It's how Lieberman talks about the war that people can't stand. He comes across as not necessarily being pro-war but being pro-Bush."

"It's not only an ideological thing. It's a temperament thing," says another former adviser, explaining Lieberman's approach to politics in general. "He really does believe that there's a bipartisan sort of consensus. That attitude worked for him politically in Connecticut for the last 30 years, and it worked for him nationally in the 1990s. But now the earth has shifted. One, I don't think the Bush Republicans play that way. And, two, most people in the Democratic Party don't want anything to do with that attitude."

Exacerbating this problem has been Lieberman's staff. "He's got a staff now that's very knowledgeable in their substantive areas," says one Lieberman friend. "But there's not a lot of political smarts there." A number of Lieberman's friends and supporters cite his November 2005 Wall Street Journal op-ed backing Bush's strategy in Iraq and urging Democrats to do the same-- which Lamont said triggered his decision to enter the race--as a perfect example of something Lieberman's staff should have prevented from happening. "He needed someone to say to him, `Senator, I hear you're going to write an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about Iraq,'" argues one former adviser. "I know you have your opinions, but the filing deadline for a challenger is six weeks away. Shut the hell up for six weeks."

Others point to his campaign's sputtering start. For months, the campaign did little to combat Lamont's-- and his supporters'--caricature of Lieberman as "George Bush's favorite Democrat." "His politics can't be boiled down to a bumper sticker," says one former adviser, "but he allowed himself to become a bumper sticker." The campaign was also slow to bring much scrutiny on Lamont himself. And, when it finally did in June--cutting an amateurish cartoon ad attacking Lamont for his close ties to former Connecticut Senator and Governor Lowell Weicker--the effort was almost laughably bad. "That ad was retarded," says one Democratic Senate aide sympathetic to Lieberman.

THE OVERWHELMINGLY NEGATIVE response to the ad may have served as something of a wake-up call. Many of the same people who have been disappointed with Lieberman and his campaign believe that both may be finally getting things together--pointing to Lieberman's aggressive performance in his July 7 debate with Lamont and the campaign's recent efforts to reach out to former Lieberman aides for help. "I was contacted by the campaign for the first time--other than fund-raising appeals--about two or three weeks ago," says a former senior adviser to Lieberman. "I don't know what they want me to do. If me going up there and knocking on doors will help, I'll go knock on doors." Even if Lieberman does lose in the Democratic primary, his supporters are now more confident that he'll win the general election.

What brought about the change? A number of the Lieberman supporters I spoke with believe some of the credit goes to Connecticut's senior senator, Chris Dodd, who is said to have taken an increasingly active role in the campaign in recent weeks. "I believe he's given Joe some very tough talk and some very sound advice," says John Droney, a former chairman of the Connecticut Democratic Party. "He's expressed his views to Joe as to what he needs to do to win in no uncertain terms."

Others give the credit to Lieberman himself. After a shaky start, they believe he's finally rising to the challenge. "He's not depressed, he's not sad, he's not down--he is furious," says Lanny Davis, a friend of Lieberman's who has been assisting the campaign. "I've been there with him since his first campaign in 1970, and I've never seen him this angry."

Occasionally, that anger even comes into public view. When I spoke with Lieberman, he had a difficult time hiding his frustration with Lamont, whom he seemed to consider both a lightweight and a phony. "Look, he's coming to this at a difficult time with very little experience in government," Lieberman said of his challenger. "And, more fundamentally, his record in Greenwich town government [where Lamont served as a selectman in the 1990s], which was fairly conservative ... is so different from what he is now in this campaign--as he saw the opportunity to become a senator--that I don't know what he would do as a senator."

But, even in the midst of a tough campaign, Lieberman tends to keep things light--"the consummate happy warrior," as one of his former advisers calls him. After diners, Lieberman's favorite stop on the campaign trail seems to be town halls, where he typically receives an enthusiastic reception from local Democratic officials eager to get a few minutes of face time with a man who, for the moment at least, can steer federal dollars toward their various projects. On a recent afternoon in the small town of Thomaston, Lieberman offered a steady stream of one-liners--and elicited hearty chuckles--as he met with various local officials. In the assessor's office, he eagerly dug into a bowl of candy and joked, "She needs to have candy to offer troubled taxpayers." When he met a local probate judge who was running for reelection unopposed, Lieberman feigned jealousy. "This was a dream of mine," he said, clutching his heart, "not yet achieved."

Finally, Lieberman found his way to the town clerk's office. There, he asked the clerk about whether many people were coming in to register for the Democratic primary. Yes, she replied, but then she noted a strange anomaly: Lately, a number of those who'd been trying to register for the Democratic primary were, in fact, Republicans; because it was less than three months before the primary, however, it was too late for them to switch parties. Lieberman, as always, was ready with a quip. "Those are probably my voters," he said. This time, nobody laughed.

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.