Lamont vs. Lieberman, Round 2
On a recent slate-gray October morning, Ned Lamont stopped by a McDonald's perched on the west bank of the Naugatuck River in Derby, Connecticut. Derby is an old industrial village north of Bridgeport. From the nineteenth through much of the twentieth century, abundant hydropower turned Derby and the strip of riverside towns north to Waterbury into one of the nation's dominant manufacturing districts. Immigrants poured into the lower Naugatuck Valley, laboring at factories that turned out raw brass and rubber and supplied the nation with corsets, clocks and machine tools. In 1955 floods from a devastating hurricane washed away some of Derby's lower-lying neighboring towns, and a generation ago global capital flight finished the job. Affordable real estate prices and solid housing stock have turned pockets into bedroom communities for wealthy Fairfield County down the river, but most of the Valley remains marked by abandoned main streets, high unemployment and the perpetually disappointed hope of revitalization.
On this particular morning Lamont, whose grandfather's partnership with J.P. Morgan created the family fortune, and who earned his own as a cable-TV entrepreneur before entering the US Senate race, was at the Derby McDonald's for a meet-and-greet with Naugatuck Valley war veterans--mostly VFW members from Korea and World War II, long since retired from jobs at Sikorsky Helicopter, Scoville Brass and Seth Thomas Clocks. There were a lot of reporters around, mostly because Lamont's sidekick this morning was retired Gen. Wesley Clark. The TV cameras and notebooks pointed at Clark as he denounced the Bush Administration's Iraq policy and argued cheerfully with William "Wild Bill" Menna, the former mayor of neighboring Ansonia, who planned to vote for Lamont's main opponent, former Democrat and now-independent Senator Joe Lieberman. "Do something 'wild' on Election Day," Clark gamely urged Menna.
But while the reporters continued to mob Clark, a gangly young man named Sten Westguard approached Lamont on the sidelines and pressed a photo of a man in a uniform into the candidate's hand. Almost inaudibly Westguard murmured to Lamont that this was a picture of his cousin in the 134th Field Artillery, who enlisted right after September 11 and is now on his second deployment in Iraq. "I'm worried to death about him, and you've got to get him home," Westguard said to Lamont. "This is a big blunder."
The purpose of the Lamont-and-Clark McDonald's visit seemed transparent: to burnish Lamont's national-security credentials in his general election campaign against Lieberman, the prowar, three-term incumbent whom Lamont defeated in the Democratic primary. But there was more to it. The Naugatuck Valley is Lieberman's stronghold. This neighborhood of solidly working- and lower-middle-class Democrats is the only zone of the state where Lieberman outran Lamont in August. Several of the region's Democratic officials, notably the mayor of 100,000-strong Waterbury a few miles up Route 8 from Derby, have broken with the state party to stick with Lieberman, putting their still-potent (and in the case of Waterbury, notoriously corrupt) political machines to work for him in the general election. Lamont needs every vote he can get in the Valley.
With Lieberman now campaigning as an independent, the Connecticut Senate race is no mere rerun. Lieberman, who seemed not to know what hit him during the primary, returned to the political stage with new muscle, scoring Lamont in speeches and campaign ads for inexperience. And he appears to have decided to let Lieberman be Lieberman: prowar, cultural conservative, champion of global free-trade measures and privatization, all the while claiming politics is too partisan. When the Senate took up Bush's enemy-combatants bill, Lieberman--ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee--ignored the pleas of retired generals like Hugh Shelton and Colin Powell and backed the President. "These are people who will kill any of us, all of us," he said of Guantánamo detainees. His only bow to the antiwar sentiment that fueled his primary defeat has been to call for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation on the grounds that the Iraq operation needs new leadership, and he has insisted, against any available evidence, that he's sought Rumsfeld's ouster for years. When the Foley scandal broke, instead of joining the call for House Speaker Dennis Hastert's resignation, Lieberman reached into his cultural-conservative portfolio and introduced a bill to require online pornography purveyors to run ID checks.
Lamont, for his part, needed to retool. For better or worse, the enduring image from primary night was of his giving a victory speech flanked by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, which cuts two ways in a state divided between cities with large black populations and mostly white suburbs. Lamont needed to introduce himself anew to unaffiliated voters and Republicans for whom Lieberman is a household name and who, if they pay attention to Lamont at all, think of him as a one-issue antiwar candidate.
For several weeks, Lamont's campaign--without the galvanizing summertime mission of coalescing long-simmering anti-Lieberman sentiment among Democrats--seemed to lose focus. "I enjoyed the primary a lot more," Lamont confessed on a recent Saturday, after sending off volunteers to knock on doors in Norwalk. "It was grassroots. This phase of the campaign is more: I hit Joe, Joe hits back. Bare-knuckle stuff." In Norwalk, Lamont--in shirtsleeves, sneakers and Brooks Brothers trousers--gave his volunteers a set of talking points, beginning not with the war but with the experience question: "If they say experience, you say results." That's a tough road: Lieberman has a reputation for bringing home the bacon when it comes to highway money and defense jobs, the only sector of Connecticut's old industrial economy to survive. Persuading voters on "results" requires Lamont and his volunteers to make the perhaps too abstract case that Connecticut is actually forty-ninth in terms of the percentage of federal tax dollars returned to it; that the state's share of homeland security funding has steadily dwindled since 9/11, despite two major harbors, a submarine base, an international airport and the greatest concentration of corporate headquarters outside Manhattan.
Joe Lieberman is universally recognized as the de facto GOP candidate in the race. The official Republican candidate, a state senator from Milford named Alan Schlesinger, was nominated as a sacrificial lamb back when Lieberman seemed invulnerable. Even before Lieberman's independent run, GOP Governor Jodi Rell implored Schlesinger to step aside when reports of a massive gambling habit emerged in the press. Since then, GOP leaders and voters alike have written him off and turned to Lieberman. Every poll shows Lieberman drawing two-thirds of the state's likely Republican voters; the latest Hartford Courant/University of Connecticut poll gives Schlesinger just 4 percent of Republican votes. In the poll even Lamont gets more GOP votes than that.