Thirty minutes before his only Senate primary debate with Joe Lieberman, Democratic antiwar challenger Ned Lamont was standing alone Thursday night in the dusty parking lot behind WVIT-TV trying to get some peace of mind.
His suit jacket off and his blue Hermes tie (or a convincing facsimile) on proud display, Lamont seemed more like a relaxed suburbanite walking to his car than an upstart cable-television entrepreneur about to take on his party's former vice-presidential nominee in a debate broadcast live on MSNBC and C-Span. Rather than rehearsing his opening statement, Lamont preferred to reminisce about the Fourth of July parade in Willimantic where he was cheered and Lieberman, the three-term senator, fought off a smattering of boos. The candidate only jerked back to reality when I asked him what he expected from the upcoming debate and he replied in an on-message tone of voice, "A hard-hitting debate on the issues, if I have anything to say about it."
The debate turned out to be hard-hitting enough to qualify as a blood sport. It was less a high-minded discussion of the issues and more an initiation rite into big-league politics as Lieberman went on the attack from the outset determined to reduce Lamont to pipsqueak status. Lieberman, an unswerving supporter of the Iraq war, responded to a recent Lamont TV ad in which the senator's voice was syncopated with the president's face, by declaring, "Ned, I'm not George Bush. So why don't you stop running against him and have the courage and honesty to run against me?" A few minutes later, Lieberman ridiculed Lamont's call for a rigid deadline for withdrawal from Iraq as "dumb."
Lamont accomplished what he needed to do, which was to survive onstage with Lieberman shielded only by his lectern festooned with the NBC peacock. There were moments, especially at the beginning of the debate, when the whites of Lamont's eyes grew large and radiated that deer-in-the-headlights look. But aside from a few minor verbal stumbles -- such as saying billion rather than million when referring to the number of illegal aliens in this country -- Lamont gave a credible and sincere, if not necessarily inspired, performance. The novice debater even got off a few one-liners of his own, responding to a Lieberman interruption by snapping, "This is not Fox News, sir."
Most post-debate spin has the predictability of an Israeli-Palestinian joint TV interview, but occasionally a morsel of honesty emerges from the soundtrack of leftover rebuttal points. Chatting with reporters after his prime-time moment, Lamont got it mostly right when he said, "Look, I went toe-to-toe with a former candidate for vice president who last debated Dick Cheney. I think people now know that Ned Lamont is a potential U.S. senator." (Lamont's one annoying verbal tic was to frequently follow the pompous politician's penchant for referring to himself in the third person.)
Lieberman, who had honed his aggressive instincts in more than a dozen debates with his Democratic rivals during his sputtering 2004 presidential bid, rattled off a series of attack lines against Lamont hoping that one would stick. They veered from the ridiculous (harping on Lamont's voting record during his time in local government in his hometown of Greenwich) to the provocative (repeatedly challenging Lamont, whose family's net worth is between $90 million and $300 million, to release his income tax records). The senator repeatedly tried to raise doubts about his challenger by asking ominously, "Who is Ned Lamont?"
But the biggest boost for Lieberman's chances in the too-muddled-to-handicap Aug. 8 primary was that the senator's backup plans for an independent candidacy never emerged as a major motif Thursday night. When Lieberman announced at a Monday press conference that he would soon circulate petitions to put his name on the ballot in November in case he lost the primary, he faced the political danger that this sore-loser-man gambit would dominate his faceoff with Lamont. Instead, the topic was only raised in passing and, as a result, Lieberman did not have to spend the evening explaining why he was prepared to stand up against his party's official nominee to mount an independent campaign for reelection.
Yet the fascination of the Lieberman-Lamont race is that it exists at all. This was the year when the Democrats were supposed to be on good behavior in their single-minded quest to win back Congress, pragmatically embracing anti-abortion candidates like Pennsylvania Senate favorite Bob Casey and recruiting every Iraqi veteran the party could find.
But Lamont's challenge to Lieberman, the best-known centrist in the party, revives all the ancient fault lines that have bedeviled Democrats. This is dove vs. hawk, change vs. complacency and the grass-roots (and net-roots) activists vs. the party establishment. This is a race whose heavy-handed symbolism outweighs its real-world significance, since under almost any scenario the next senator from Connecticut will be a member of the Democratic caucus.
There is an element of selfishness to both the Lamont and Lieberman candidacies. Before Lamont mounted his quixotic primary challenge last winter, he was repeatedly warned that an effort to oust Lieberman might complicate Democratic hopes of winning three Republican House seats in Connecticut. Now Lieberman has taken an equally ego-driven route with his threat of an independent candidacy. And once again, the three vulnerable House Republicans in the state take a back seat to the high-decibel battle for the soul (if it exists) of the Democratic Party.
Perhaps it is churlish to deny the drama of the Lieberman-Lamont race. Intra-party struggles are so engaging because everyone involved is so emotional about the choice. It is easy for Democrats to loathe George W. Bush. But these days, the only real way for Democrats to define themselves in terms of taste, tactics and tolerance is to take sides in the Lieberman vs. Lamont death struggle in the once peaceable kingdom of Connecticut.