Lieberman’s Last Stand: He Loses to Neophyte

On the eve of the worst election day of his 18-year Senate career, Joe Lieberman’s campaign bus slowly rolled under a white banner announcing “Welcome State Champions.”

The sign wasn’t for him, but for the Little League team he had come to cheer on a muggy, nerve-wracking Monday night in Bristol. While fans, and voters, in the bleachers struggled to get a glimpse of him, Mr. Lieberman stood with crossed arms in a secluded area behind home plate. Through a metal gate he watched the Vermont batters hit Connecticut’s pitches out of the ballpark.

“I want to see the half of the inning when the Connecticut team comes to bat,” whispered Mr. Lieberman to one of the Little League officials standing next to him. “I hope it happens soon.”

One long Vermont home run later, things hadn’t gone the way Mr. Lieberman had hoped.

It’s been that kind of campaign for the Senator.

Not so long ago, Mr. Lieberman was poised to become the Vice President of the United States and was seen as an important voice of centrism within the party. But on Tuesday, Connecticut Democrats appeared poised to deliver a stunning vote of no confidence against the three-term Senator in favor a Ned Lamont, an old-money businessman who had never previously run for major office.

With his once-illustrious career hanging by a thread, the Senator faced a possible choice between bowing out of politics or pressing on into the general election as an independent candidate, effectively severing what remained of his ties to the party in which he had spent his political life.

At press time, with 57 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Lamont led Mr. Lieberman, 52 to 48 percent.

Early on Election Night, speculation seemed to run towards the latter.

“He just can’t imagine himself out of the Senate,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who added that it would take double-digit leads to dissuade Mr. Lieberman from soldiering on as an independent. “That’s his life.”

During the campaign, the Senator had indicated as much.

In an interview last week on one of the darkest days of his trying campaign—a Quinnipiac University poll had just come out showing Mr. Lieberman trailing in the double digits to Mr. Lamont—the Senator suggested that he would forge ahead no matter what.

“I am going to win the primary,” Mr. Lieberman told The Observer on Friday afternoon when asked about his plans in the event of defeat. “But if not, I started a petition drive for a reason, and that’s enough of a hint.”

Mr. Lieberman was speaking from the back of the “Joe’s Tomorrow Tour” campaign bus, which had parked for a few minutes rest at the North Farms Reservoir. Outside, a few people fished for sunnies in the pond. Reporters sat on rocks and scribbled into their notepads. High-school volunteers dressed in white T-shirts bearing Lieberman slogans flirted with one another and kicked dirt by the bus tires.

“After you send a message, you have to have a Senator too,” said Mr. Lieberman. “They have got to be careful in sending the message that they don’t send somebody to Washington who is not really able to do much for them or the country.”

But it is exactly Mr. Lieberman’s behavior in Washington that got him into such a precarious situation in the first place. His persistent support of the war—and perceived closeness to the Bush administration on other issues—aroused the ire of liberal voters, made him a target for left-leaning bloggers across the country and left him without defenders among his Democratic colleagues in the Senate. And Mr. Lieberman didn’t help his cause when he declared his intention to give himself a do-over by running as an independent if he lost the primary.

Mr. Lieberman’s opponent turned out to be a competent candidate in his own right, and one who was able to back up his message of protest with television ads paid for out of his considerable personal fortune.

Mr. Lieberman, on the other hand, proved at times to be surprisingly inept at connecting with voters. At times, he almost seemed intent on avoiding them. He picked locations like a Citgo station at a nondescript corner in Manchester to shake hands and hold a small press conference. Every time the door of the bus opened in a new town, he was greeted by a crush of volunteers in white shirts. They made a lot of noise and waved plenty of signs, but they also insulated him from the actual voters walking outside the exuberant perimeter.

Mr. Lamont, by contrast, often walked the streets alone and interrupted reporters to have actual conversations with voters.

“Lieberman is an honorable guy, but he has no pitch, no ear for Democratic Party politics,” said Tom Ochs, Democratic strategist whose firm has close ties to Howard Dean and the Democratic National Committee. “He failed to realize two things: One, he did not take the challenge seriously until it was too late—that was a fatal mistake—and his trying to have it both ways in terms of the primary cost him a lot of votes. A more skilled candidate never would have made that mistake.”

In the last days of the race, Mr. Lieberman often repeated the argument that since he now understands the message that angry voters meant to send by kicking him out of Congress, there was no reason to vote against him anymore. He delivered shades of that message in Hartford, New Haven, Wallingford and Danbury, at diners, an energy plant, groceries and farmers markets.

The problem was there was hardly anyone to hear it.

On Friday morning, the day after the poll by Quinnipiac University showed Mr. Lieberman trailing in the double digits, a downpour chased many shoppers and potential voters away from a greenmarket outside the library in East Hartford. Members of Mr. Lieberman’s advance team taped campaign posters to the back window of a green van, out of which a woman sold eggplants and corn. As soon as the staffers were out of earshot, she told a reporter that, in fact, she didn’t care much about politics or Mr. Lieberman.

The sky cleared and the bus arrived. Chartered from Peter Pan Bus Lines, thin legs in green tights poked out from beneath the Senator’s name. The volunteers stepped off first, assembling themselves into a cocoon of enthusiasm for the Senator. He emerged wearing pleated pants, loafers and a white shirt with yellow-and-blue checkers that was opened at the top to expose a tuft of white chest hair. His bottom teeth were yellowed but straight as picket fences. His neck bore the redness of early-morning razor burn.

“I’m a fighter for the regular people,” said Mr. Lieberman after weighing an eggplant and slowly punching the air. “God bless.”

But most of the few regular people at the market—the majority were Lieberman staffers, volunteers and press—were either Republican, disinterested or supporting Ned Lamont.

After shaking everyone’s hand, Mr. Lieberman walked into the library next door. There were dozens of potential voters checking the stacks or perusing newspapers, but the Senator said he didn’t want to disturb anyone’s reading. Instead, he spoke in hushed tones with the librarian, told her that he really liked the early short stories of Ernest Hemingway, and said he should really be getting back on the bus.

Back on the bus, Mr. Lieberman plopped down on his seat in the back. The tinted windows were papered inside with blue and white Lieberman placards. Volunteers seated in the first four rows read PennySavers or listened to music in their headphones, while Mr. Lieberman typed messages into his BlackBerry or conferred with aides.

One of the two women wore a button on her hip that depicted Bill Clinton in an embrace of the Senator—a late retort to the Lamont campaign’s buttons featuring Mr. Lieberman locked in a “kiss” with President Bush, a damning visual indictment of the Senator’s collusion with the current administration.

It was precisely that image that Mr. Lieberman was working hardest to negate, an effort culminating in a major Sunday speech he called his “closing argument.” In it, he emphasized his “heavy personal responsibility” for bringing about a quick and successful end to the war.

And at a Stop and Shop down the road, Mr. Lieberman encountered a crowd of friendly faces.

Francis Maffe Jr., an election worker, winked at Mr. Lieberman and said, “I got to remain neutral but I’ll tell you this, I’m a conservative Democrat—you figure which way I’m voting.”

“I like people neutral like you’re neutral,” said Mr. Lieberman.

By Monday, Mr. Lieberman had a glimmer of hope: A new Quinnipiac University poll had just been released that showed him a manageable six points behind his challenger.

“The momentum is building for us,” he told reporters. “I can feel a surge coming on.” Women wearing the purple shirts of SEIU workers served as reminders to the vast Democratic machine working behind him. Last-minute television commercials flooded the airways.

Outside a restaurant called Vito’s by the Park in Hartford, Mr. Lieberman followed his son off the bus and happily waded into the white wave of volunteers chanting, “Vote for Who You Know.” With the bus blocking the street behind him, and the volunteers forming an insulated pocket around him, it was once again unclear how many people he intended to reach.

Inside the circle of supporters, Senator Chris Dodd—who, like Lieberman, was dressed in brown loafers, a blue blazer and blue-and-white-striped shirt—delivered a short stump speech. He argued that “people have made the false connection between Joe Lieberman and George Bush.”

But when asked by a reporter whether he would support Mr. Lieberman as an independent candidate if Mr. Lamont won the primary, he could only say, “I’ve stayed away from it.”

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Lieberman showed up at 9:30 at his polling station in New Haven. From the center of a pack of jostling television cameraman he screamed, “No Johnny-come-lately—that’s the voice of the people!” as he walked up the steps.

Later, at an event with some firefighters in Stratford, Mr. Lieberman’s wife Hadassah talked admiringly about her husband’s perseverance.

“I’ve never been in a primary of this sort,” she said, before adding that she was perfectly prepared to keep going for as long as he was.

“I stand by my man,” she said. “Whatever he tells me we’re doing, we’re doing.”

Later, at yet another Stop and Shop, this one in Shelton, Mr. Lieberman said that he had heard the message of voters angry about Iraq and his support of President Bush, and that it had provided him with an important lesson—for his fourth term.

“Try to get their attention when I am expressing the range of opinions I have about a complicated subject like Iraq,” said Mr. Lieberman. “Because I think my opponent and to some extent the media were allowed to simplify my position on Iraq.”

It was all a big misunderstanding.