Ned Lamont has had a rough fall.
After beating incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman in the August 8 Connecticut Democratic primary, Lamont's campaign lost both its focus and its momentum.
With the tacit support of the Bush White House and the Republican National Committee, as well as a "who's who" of special-interest groups and their Washington lobbyists, Lieberman pieced together a sophisticated reelection campaign on his own "Connecticut for Lieberman" independent line. With relative ease, the senior senator and consummate Washington insider successfully repositioned himself as a reformer who wanted to put an end to partisanship.
The Lamont camp should have been able to expose the absurdity of Lieberman's claims and put the incumbent on the defensive in the fall campaign – just as the challenger and his supporters did so ably in the primary race. Instead, the challenger's campaign fumbled. Lamont's campaign manager, Tom Swan, admitted in mid-October that, "We had a slow start after the primary. It was a short-term mistake…"
Precious time was lost in late August and early September, as the Lamont camp tried to frame new themes for the fall campaign. Instead of driving home the message that Connecticut can and must send a message to George W. Bush and those members of Congress – like Lieberman – who have steered the country into a disastrous war, the Lamont campaign seemed to edge away from the smart and effective anti-war message the took its candidate from obscurity to the Democratic nomination.
Perhaps most unfortunately, the Lamont campaign started to sound petty. The daily attacks on Lieberman wore thin. There was too much picayune pondering of whether the incumbent had broken a term-limits promise, and too little emphasis on "Bring the Troops Home" fundamentals.
The Connecticut Senate race was becoming less and less a referendum on the war and more and more a referendum on Lieberman – a candidate who, despite his flaws, had a long history with Connecticut voters. As the crucial month of October slipped away, the Hartford Courant reported that Lieberman and his aides were "confident they [had] made the race about more than an unpopular war."
Polls have reflected that assessment. Lieberman has opened up a wide lead – 52 percent for the incumbent, 37 percent for Lamont, 6 percent for orphaned Republican Alan Schlesinger, in a Quinnipiac University survey conducted two weeks ago. Yet, the same poll found that 67 percent of Connecticut voters disapprove of George Bush's handling of the war – and, by extension, the senator's pro-war position.
Aware that they are in very real danger of losing a race they should be winning, Lamont and his advisors are focusing anew on the anti-war message that proved so powerful in the primary. "There are other issues, but everything else pales in comparison to the war," Tom D'Amore, a Lamont adviser, explained on Sunday. "It is the issue of our time."
To deliver the message that Lieberman is on the wrong side of the issue, the Lamont campaign is banking on retired General Wesley Clark, who served as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander before leaving the military and emerging as one of the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration's military misadventures.
In a new television ad for the Lamont campaign, Clark declares, "I'm retired General Wes Clark. Joe Lieberman introduced the resolution authorizing the War in Iraq. That was a mistake. Joe Lieberman voted for that resolution without asking the tough questions. That was also a mistake. And now, three and a half years into a failing mission in Iraq, Joe Lieberman can't seem to say we should change the course. And that's a REAL mistake."
Clark concludes: "Re-elect Joe Lieberman? Well, there's a word for it. ‘Mistake.'"
The ad delivers the right message, and it is being echoed with appropriate urgency by Lamont. Recalling how he began thinking about challenging Lieberman in November 2005, after the senator penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece about his support for Bush's war, the Democratic nominee is telling Connecticut voters that "Joe Lieberman and George Bush are as wrong on [the war] today as they were a year ago, when I got into this race."
The question now is whether the right message is coming in time to renew Ned Lamont's prospects in an election that is barely a week away.
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