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In Conn. Senate race, it's all about war

Opposition boosts Lamont in primary

GOSHEN, Conn. -- Ned Lamont was being asked, again, about his position on the Iraq war. Standing on the side of a rural road Saturday afternoon outside a local jazz festival, he started to tick off his stock response for a clutch of reporters -- start bringing home US troops, let ``the Iraqis themselves solve this" -- but then he stopped himself short.

``You've heard me say this," Lamont said suddenly. ``You can stop writing. You've got it."

With Connecticut's Democratic Senate primary tomorrow, Lamont may be tired of talking about the war. But judging from the polls, Connecticut has already heard his message.

The war issue has turned Lamont's once seemingly quixotic quest to beat a Democratic icon, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, into a very real opportunity for a primary victory.

Lamont, 52, has largely succeeded in focusing the campaign on Lieberman and his support for the Iraq war, despite the senator's attempts to paint Lamont as a spoiled millionaire who lacks the gravitas to sit in the US Senate.

In the campaign's final days, Lieberman is fighting back. Yesterday, he accused Lamont of distorting his record on Iraq and other issues. He also raised questions about Lamont's lack of experience, saying that he can't be counted on as a reliable voice on progressive causes because he's never had to cast votes on tough issues.

``The other guy comes out of nowhere, and he's kind of telling everybody what they want to hear. But he hasn't been there to do the work," Lieberman said yesterday at a church in Bridgeport. ``I've fought to make your lives better."

With polls showing Lamont ahead by as much as 13 percentage points going into the primary election, the spotlight could soon turn to a man who was a virtually unknown cable executive just a few months ago.

Lieberman, 64, has vowed to run as an independent if he loses tomorrow's race, meaning that even if Lamont upsets the three-term incumbent, their fight would be joined anew in the final-month dash of a campaign.

``This campaign has been about `anybody but Lieberman.' [Lamont] is not Lieberman, and he hasn't screwed up," said Kenneth Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. ``But if Lamont wins the Democratic nomination, it will become a lot more about Lamont."

Lamont's campaign was adopted by a vocal group of liberal activists who trained national attention on the race through their blogs. On the Internet, outrage over Lieberman's war position is fierce and unvarnished, and Lamont has come to represent their best hope of sending an antiwar message to the national Democratic Party.

Yet for all the anger that has fueled his campaign, Lamont is a remarkably sunny presence on the campaign trail. His shirt sleeves rolled up and black-and-yellow sneakers constantly bouncing, he spins through gatherings at breakneck speed, eager to shake hands and deliver smiles. He is courteous though sometimes brusque, clipping off conversations by saying, ``anyway . . ." and moving on.

At a small carnival yesterday in Orange, his campaign aides and the media swarm in attendance had trouble keeping up with his circuitous path. He greeted the children in line for pony rides, shook hands with the man running the water-gun races, and even stepped on the giant scale -- 166, it read.

On the stump, he is earnest and lively; more than a few supporters have likened him to James Stewart's character in ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In the campaign's one televised debate, Lieberman was by far the more aggressive, and Lamont appeared startled and wide-eyed at first before starting to push back.

``He's like Wally, the older brother in `Leave It to Beaver,' " said Edward Anderson, a cofounder of an anti-Lieberman website, dumpjoe.com, who initially helped try to recruit a series of Democratic elected officials to take on Lieberman.

Corliss Darge, a retiree who lives in North Branford, said she was first interested in Lamont because she was upset over Lieberman's position on the war. But she said seeing Lamont in action reminds her of a Democrat she loved years ago: John F. Kennedy.

``He generates that kind of enthusiasm, and that's been something lacking among Democrats," said Darge, who came to Orange to meet Lamont yesterday. ``It's fun to be excited."

Lamont's political experience consists of a stint on Greenwich's Board of Selectmen in the 1980s, and a single failed run for the state Senate. The Greenwich resident's decision to run for Senate stunned even close family members.

``I'm not surprised he ran for something, but I am surprised he took on Joe Lieberman," Lamont's father, Ted, said in an interview Saturday in Hartford, where he was campaigning for his son. ``But when the opportunity was there, on important issues of war and peace, he felt it was time to stand up."

At first glance, Lamont seems ill-cast to play the favorite son of the antiwar blogosphere. His great-grandfather was J.P. Morgan's business partner. Buildings bear his family name at Harvard, Columbia, and Smith College. He was a member of a mostly white country club until just before he launched the campaign, a subject exploited by Lieberman in a radio ad that began airing over the weekend.

Edward M. Lamont Jr. is descended from a line of Brahmin Republicans who followed the Exeter-to-Harvard path. Ted Lamont actually worked under Governor Mitt Romney's father, George, when the elder Romney was Richard Nixon's secretary of housing and urban development.

Ned Lamont, however, was always a Democrat, his father recalled. But his business career kept him away from politics for the most part. After a brief stint at a start-up newspaper in Vermont, he entered the cable business in 1980, and hasn't left it.

Lamont Digital Systems, the privately held business Lamont started in 1984, now provides cable and high-speed data services to gated communities and colleges. It has made Lamont extremely wealthy -- he's worth as much as $300 million -- and he has tapped his fortune to pour roughly $4 million of his own money into his campaign.

Lamont has broadened his campaign beyond the war, offering proposals for universal healthcare, alternative energy, and decreasing the influence of lobbyists. But Iraq and the broader anti-Lieberman sentiments it has exposed remain the overriding forces in his campaign.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found Lamont leading Lieberman 54 percent to 41 percent. In the same poll, Lamont supporters said by a 2-to-1 ratio that their vote would be more against Lieberman than for Lamont.

Lamont, of course, will take any votes he can get. But he made clear that he would prefer that votes are cast with a positive notion of Lamont in mind, giving him the type of support he'll need in a tough general election race.

``I think people have a pretty good idea of who Ned Lamont is, what he's for, and the changes I'd bring to Washington," Lamont said. ``I want people to vote for Ned Lamont. I want them to vote for a change."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

Lamont gains

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