Ned Lamont, Connecticut’s Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, crossed the rainy street alone. Struggling to keep an umbrella convex above his head, he froze at the curb to pat down his pockets, looking very much like someone who realizes he’s left something behind.
Life for Mr. Lamont has changed dramatically since the heady days of his victory over incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman in August’s primary. There is still a week to go until Election Day, but the enthusiasm that impelled his unlikely insurgency has ebbed. The exhilarating Lamont experiment has fizzled.
“During the primary, it was more person-to-person,” Mr. Lamont said on Saturday morning, after taking shelter from the rain inside his Ford Escape, parked on Black Rock Avenue in New Britain, Conn. “I find that in a general election, everything is more compressed—lots more TV and more 30-second spots and media hits back and forth. And you know, there Joe went at us pretty good, pretty early, and I’m relatively new to the political landscape.”
Down more than a dozen points in the polls, Mr. Lamont has practically become a self-financed candidate, pouring $12.7 million of his own money into his campaign to compensate for lackluster fund-raising. He is sorely missing the grassroots fervor and national attention he enjoyed early on, when he was the darling of the blogosphere and the bellwether of Democratic politics. Mr. Lamont is making a last-ditch effort to refocus his message on Iraq and regain his prior momentum, but it seems to be too little, too late.
Democratic strategists and consultants, some of them sympathetic to the campaign, are already talking about it in the past tense.
“I think it was possible for Lamont to pull it off,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran political analyst. “There were moments right after the primary where it was basically a tied race.”
The apparent end of the much-ballyhooed Lamont phenomenon is causing a great deal of soul-searching and recrimination in all corners of the Democratic Party. The bloggers that once championed Mr. Lamont as an awkward but earnest savior now alternately blame Washington’s strategists for hijacking their candidate and Democratic leaders for abandoning him. Beltway consultants fault the Lamont campaign for failing to move the candidate beyond his left-wing celebrity and define him for a greater electorate.
“You know, it’s Ned Lamont’s campaign,” said Mr. Lamont.
He bristled at the suggestion that he got caught in the middle of a Democratic power struggle and argued that the party had come around to his message on Iraq. “I’d like to think we’ve made a small difference in that, but more important, I think the nation is reaching the same conclusions we were at, about a year ago, that it is time for that change.”
Despite that shift in climate, it is Mr. Lieberman who seems poised to win re-election. Running as an independent, the 18-year incumbent has taken advantage of his wide network of established political connections to raise more than $15 million from conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans across the country.
Mr. Shrum added that Mr. Lieberman benefited greatly from the absence of a plausible Republican candidate. That notion was echoed by Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist whose media firm represented the Presidential campaign of another candidate who owed his initial surge and ultimate demise to liberal Internet activism: Howard Dean.
“Ironically, the success of the Lamont primary campaign is what positioned Joe Lieberman to win the general-election campaign,” said Mr. McMahon.
“The primary was much more about anger at Bush and the war,” said Josh Isay, a media advisor to Mr. Lieberman and former consultant to Mayor Michael Bloomberg who joined the campaign in August. He stressed that the Lieberman campaign was taking nothing for granted, but argued that the general electorate played much more to his candidate’s favor. “You have different people going to the voting booth; you have Republicans, independents, unaffiliated—a bigger pie of Democrats.”
The Lamont campaign didn’t exactly help their cause.
The night of his primary victory, when Mr. Lamont first introduced himself to the wider Connecticut electorate, his campaign betrayed the first cracks of disorganization by allowing a motley crew of out-of-state politicians, including such controversial figures as the Reverend Al Sharpton, to appear behind him onstage.
Then the candidate seemed to simply disappear.
“Everybody went on vacation—Ned, the communications director, the campaign manager,” said a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Anybody who has ever been on a campaign before knows that the day after the primary is when you have to start defining yourself.”
Actually, campaign manager Tom Swan took a weekend off in September, and Liz Dupont-Diehl, the campaign spokeswoman, left for a few days in August. Still, the campaign became so quiet that the perception was that the operation had literally stalled.
Mr. Lamont himself conceded that he was “not ready enough” for the attacks unleashed by Mr. Lieberman after the primary.
The commercials that the campaign ran after the primary seemed to appeal much less to a general audience than to Mr. Lamont’s base of liberal primary voters. The ads—produced by the firm of Bill Hillsman, who helped Jesse (the Body) Ventura become governor of Minnesota—were unorthodox, to say the least. The kooky ones featured Mr. Lamont singing Wang Chung songs, flipping burgers and beaming in front of crowds of young, energized voters. The negative ones—and there were plenty—featured Mr. Lieberman morphing into George Bush, crashing into a brick wall or echoing Richard Nixon.
The campaign did make some efforts to reposition itself for a general election. Hillary Clinton, who held a fund-raiser for Mr. Lamont, loaned him Howard Wolfson, one of her most trusted consultants, as an unpaid advisor. Stephanie Cutter, Senator Ted Kennedy’s spokeswoman—and who also worked as director of communications for John Kerry’s Presidential campaign—came on board and eventually helped prep Mr. Lamont for the debates.
“I don’t think there is any question that he helped lead, shape and change the dialogue around this issue,” said Mr. Wolfson, who remained bullish about Mr. Lamont’s chances and refused to acknowledge any tension within the campaign. “Every campaign is a group of disparate voices.”
Still, bloggers held Mr. Wolfson responsible for the campaign’s derailment. This month, the left-wing Huffington Post compiled its readers’ grievances about the fizzling campaign into a premature concession speech for Mr. Lamont.
“I turned my campaign over to hired guns who think that running to the middle is a winning strategy—even though it’s proven to be a loser time and time and time again,” the post read.
In a recent post for his popular left-wing political blog MyDD, Matt Stoller called Democratic leaders “moral lepers” for abandoning Mr. Lamont.
“What I have seen in this race is a complete abrogation of responsibility on the part of everybody except the netroots and Ned Lamont,” Mr. Stoller said in a telephone interview. “Trusting these people is a huge tactical error. Never trust anything that these insider Democrats tell you,” he said, adding, for good measure, “Bill Clinton is a liar.”
One Democratic leader who did come to Mr. Lamont’s aid was John Kerry.
“History will judge him as right in standing up to a policy that was wrong and that has done indescribable damage to our country,” said Mr. Kerry in a statement. “What Ned did wasn’t easy, and he did it without a lot of endorsements or institutional power behind him. I think our party owed Ned to stand with him every step of the way.”
That they did not is a source of great bitterness to the Lamont campaign and the bloggers that so fervently supported it.
Still the campaign is convinced that Mr. Lamont will persevere. “Our grassroots army is second to none ever experienced in the state of Connecticut,” said Mr. Swan. “The people in the state want change.”
Some Democratic strategists argued that Mr. Lamont served as a field test of the theory that grassroots energy and blogger support were sufficient to win an election.
“They give you wind, but they don’t give you all the sail,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 Presidential campaign. “But it is the responsibility of any good candidate to put together a campaign team that is not just smart, but also understands how the political environment will shift, and that you have to shift with it.”
On Saturday, Mr. Lamont found himself in a campaign that had moved far from the exuberant atmosphere of the primary.
He walked into a union rally in New Britain wearing a tan Lands’ End jacket, blue oxford shirt, gray suit pants and brown loafers. He has aged visibly since the start of his campaign. His eyes, which cartoonists had caricatured as bulging, were now weary and bracketed by crow’s feet. Tightness showed around his mouth, and he still shifted his weight nervously as he waited to talk. But he had grown much more comfortable in front of crowds.
“I’m going to walk the walk; I’m going to talk the talk,” said Mr. Lamont to a hall full of men and women in yellow slickers. “On November 7th, we’re going to rock the boat.”
There was respectable applause but no crush of supporters, and shortly after speaking, Mr. Lamont and a young aide were in a hybrid S.U.V. driving to Black Rock Avenue.
There, the candidate planned to knock on several doors to greet voters. He visited the home of Norberto Duque, who was watching a fishing show in the living room.
“You a fisherman?” Mr. Lamont asked, before explaining why he needed Mr. Duque’s vote.
He walked back down the steps and decided on the porch to forgo any more visits. A gust of rainy wind turned his umbrella inside out.
In the afternoon, Mr. Lamont’s car sped to West Hartford, where he visited a volunteer headquarters in the basement of a professional building. Taped to the wall were maps of Connecticut and signs urging “Get Your No Joe Working!” and “Rides to the Polls Vroom Vroom.” Two people worked the phones in the back (“And what issue would you say is most important to you?”) while empty boxes of Munchkins and pizza piled up in the front.
While Mr. Lamont fielded questions on the phone from a voter, his volunteers questioned the accuracy of a Quinnipiac University poll released last month that had Mr. Lamont trailing Mr. Lieberman by more than 15 points.
“It’s very annoying; it’s very disheartening,” said Margaret Levy, a volunteer and attorney in Hartford.
Mr. Lamont moved to a corner desk where, between bites of a turkey sandwich and sips of chicken soup, he prepped his soldiers on how to respond to the concerns of voters about his record.
“You talk about experience; I like to talk about judgment,” he said. “I don’t have experience in rushing our troops off to war without a strategy to win; maybe you need a different type of experience in Washington, D.C. So I like to turn ‘experience’ on its head.”
That evening, Mr. Lamont threw on a tie to address a group of 60 potential donors gathered in a house off a secluded Durham road slicked with damp red and yellow leaves. Appetizers and glasses of wine were passed around while guests wrote checks to Mr. Lamont in the living room.
Marge Dougan, a guest and member of MoveOn.org, the liberal online organization, said that she blamed the consultants who joined the Lamont campaign after the primary for the loss of intensity. “They stick to their old ways of doing things. Of course, Ned,” she said, motioning toward Mr. Lamont, who was stepping onto the staircase to address the crowd, “he’s like a hayseed. He doesn’t know politics. All he can do is listen to them.”
“I’ve become a little anxious about the quiet that seems to have set in,” added Catherine DeNunzio, an elegant 83-year-old woman wearing a blue sweater and matching eye shadow. She also complained about the enthusiasm leaking from Mr. Lamont’s campaign and wasn’t optimistic about his prospects. “But we might have shaken things up anyway.”