There's no escaping the likely political impact of a decisive Joe Lieberman loss in the Connecticut Democratic primary next Tuesday. I'm heading up there on Sunday for the home stretch, and, as I mentioned yesterday, all signs seem bleak for President Bush's favorite Democratic senatorial hawk.
Antiwar challenger Ned Lamont was a blip on the radar screen just three months ago, a rich guy and a political novice whose most striking trait (to borrow a line from Connecticut radio host Colin McEnroe) seemed to be his facial resemblence to The Cat in the Hat. But today, with polls suggesting that he might actually thrash Lieberman by double digits, thanks to a galvanized antiwar Democratic turnout, talk has already turned to what the political world would look like next Wednesday morning.
For starters, a Lamont rout would roil the Democratic waters nationwide; elected Democrats in all but the reddest states might well conclude that it's politically smart to be outspokenly critical of the war in Iraq. Yes, Connecticut is a blue state, and its primary is open only to Democratic voters. But nationwide polls now show that independent swing voters are nearly as critical of the war, and nearly as hostile to the Bush administration's "stay the course"credo.
And what about the fate of Lieberman himself? He has already vowed not to accept a thumbs-down verdict from his Democratic voters, promising instead to run in November as an independent. But seasoned observers over the past 24 hours have been suggesting that, if he is seriously trounced next Tuesday, he would face serious pressure to fall on his sword, shelve his November plans (which would create a three-person race), and clear the field for Lamont to face the GOP candidate.
Here's a take on that situation, via Political Wire, from Connecticut columnist and ex-state senator Kevin Rennie: "State Democratic leaders are now trying to figure out how to dissuade Lieberman from carrying on as an independent. The first formal shot should come at a unity press conference (next) Wednesday. If he wins the night before, Lamont will find himself surrounded by dozens of Democratic leaders now pledged to Lieberman. No one can see how Lieberman will save himself from a stunning rout on Tuesday and they’ve stopped trying to figure it out."
And another, from non-partisan Washington analyst Stuart Rothenberg: "A resounding Lamont victory would make it very difficult for Democratic elected officials (and for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) to stick with Lieberman in a three-way...The primary result would create an entirely new dynamic in the race, undercutting Lieberman’s support for an independent bid and putting pressure on him to exit the race gracefully. That doesn’t mean the Senator couldn’t win a three-way race, only that early polls showing him with a commanding advantage in a three-way contest are meaningless. Lamont’s general election numbers would immediately spike and Lieberman’s would drop, and the Senator’s prospects for victory in November would be uncertain."
Lamont may be a big-league rookie, but I bet he isn't entirely pleased with the fact that everybody who wrote him off this spring is now writing him up as a big winner before anyone has even voted. The bar is being set so high all of a sudden, that now even a narrow Lamont victory (say, three points or less) might be spun by the Lieberman forces as sufficient grounds for staying the course and fighting on this autumn.