WASHINGTON -- Senator Joseph I. Lieberman last night attacked his Democratic primary opponent, Ned Lamont, for supporting a policy Lieberman said would ``turn Iraq over to the terrorists," confronting head-on in a widely anticipated debate the issue fueling what has emerged as the toughest challenge of his political career.
In the campaign's only scheduled televised debate, the Connecticut senator immediately went on the offensive, accusing Lamont of holding contradictory positions on the Iraq war and running just on that one issue.
Lieberman defended his continued support for the war, as well as his decision to seek a spot on the ballot even if he loses the primary. Emphasizing his opponents' lack of political experience, he twice asked the question: ``Who is Ned Lamont?"
``I'm the Democrat in this race, and I know I can do better for the people of Connecticut," Lieberman said. ``This man and his supporters will frustrate and defeat our hopes of [winning control of the Senate]. I believe this man can't be elected in November."
Lamont countered by accusing Lieberman of supporting a failed policy in Iraq. He said he wouldn't shy away from strongly opposing President Bush's policies in the war as well as other issues, including healthcare and energy.
``Ned Lamont is going to stand up and speak on behalf of Democrats," said Lamont, a cable-television entrepreneur. ``We're not going to cozy up to the Bush agenda. We're not going to provide a lot of cover to the Bush agenda."
He also blasted Lieberman for declaring his intention to run without a party affiliation if he loses the primary. Lamont has pledged to support Lieberman if the senator wins the Democratic nod Aug. 8.
``Make up your mind: Are you a Democrat or an independent?" Lamont told the third-term incumbent. ``If you want to be an independent, run as an independent. But you can't have it both ways."
The sharp exchanges came during a highly personal hour long debate last night hosted by Hartford's NBC affiliate, WVIT-TV (Channel 30). The debate aired nation wide on C-SPAN and MSNBC, in an indication of the wide interest and broader implications of the primary in a year Democrats have high hopes of retaking control of Congress.
Lieberman , 64, used the forum to tout his record of delivering federal money and jobs for Connecticut over 35 years in public life. He said he is proud of his record on behalf of ``progressive causes," and used his opening statement to directly confront his challenger, who has emerged from near-total obscurity to within six points of Lieberman in one recent poll.
``Let me tell you some things that may surprise at least Ned, but shouldn't," Lieberman said. ``I know George Bush. I've worked against George Bush. I've even run against George Bush. But 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 and my record."
But Lamont said Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, hasn't been an effective check on the president's authority. He said the senator has done nothing to address soaring healthcare costs and gas prices, or the loss of Connecticut's manufacturing jobs.
``Senator Lieberman, if you won't challenge President Bush and his failed agenda, I will," Lamont said. ``It's important that Democrats stand up and talk with a voice that's a constructive alternative to what's been going on."
Lieberman struck a sometimes dismissive tone, referring to his opponent as ``Ned" and ``this man" throughout the debate. At one point, he echoed President Reagan's famous ``There you go again" line after Lamont criticized him in a manner Lieberman thought was unfair.
In his closing statement, Lieberman said Lamont is a candidate ``you don't know, who has been inconsistent, unpredictable, and offers mostly criticism, negativism, and pessimism." Lieberman said Lamont ``would make the Senate more polarized and unproductive."
Lamont, in his early 50s, was more deferential in the way he addressed Lieberman -- he called him ``senator" throughout the debate -- but was no less direct in his criticism of his record.
``It won't take me 18 years to sign on to a bill that says healthcare is a basic right for every American," Lamont said. ``I will bring our brave troops home to the heroes' welcome that they deserve."
In the one question Lieberman was permitted to direct to Lamont, the senator sought to highlight Lamont's vast personal wealth by calling on him to release his tax returns. Lamont, who is worth between $90 million and $300 million, didn't respond to the request, and instead attacked Lieberman for supporting special-interest ``earmarks" in spending bills.
Lamont used his question to throw back at Lieberman his own words from 1988, when Lieberman was trying to oust a three-term incumbent senator, Lowell Weicker.
`` `After 18 years, the people of Connecticut say, now is the time for change,' " Lamont quoted Lieberman as saying. Lamont added: ``Do you think those words are just as true today as they were 18 years ago?"