The Magazine

The Gospel According to Lowell

Weicker ponders a grudge match against Joe Lieberman.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By FRED LUCAS
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LOWELL WEICKER PUT HIS CANE aside and thrust his heavy 6'6" frame up the stairs. Now 74, the former senator had a knee replacement last year, but as he stepped up to the pulpit at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut, one Sunday afternoon in late January, he seemed anything but feeble.

"We are all about to lose a country--ours, not Iraq," he bellowed, with the passion of a man half his age. "The greatest casualty of this war is the image we have of ourselves and the reality of what we have become. How did matters get to this point? How have we moved from Norman Rockwell's America to a United States where violence, torture, mendaciousness, spying, propaganda, and disregard for the law have become the new patriotism?"

In the last seven years, Weicker has been closer to pro wrestling than to politics, as a board member of the Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment. But it's looking more and more like he'll be taking on an old rival for a grudge match 18 years in the making: a third-party challenge to Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democrat who ended Weicker's third term in the Senate in 1988, defeating him by just 10,000 votes.

A lot has changed since 1988. Weicker served one term as Connecticut's governor, then seemed to retire from politics in 1994. Lieberman, meanwhile, went from being Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 to Democratic pariah, scorned by the left wing of the party for his dogged support of the Iraq war.

This year, many angry liberals want to rally behind an antiwar candidate who will criticize the president, not a Democrat who has been mentioned for cabinet positions in the Bush administration.

For now, though, Weicker is playing the reluctant warrior.

"I have no desire to get back in the political ring," he told the crowd of 150 people at the First Congregational Church's antiwar forum, where he was the keynote speaker. "But it's the only thing I know how to do in terms of confronting this issue. One thing I do know, I am not going to give anyone in Connecticut in public office a free pass on this issue."

In an interview for this article, Weicker threw down the gauntlet: He'll stay out of the race only if "we are out of Iraq, if Joe Lieberman no longer agrees with the president, if an antiwar Republican runs, or if a viable Democrat can challenge Lieberman in the Democratic primary."

Subsequently, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont started a self-financed campaign against Lieberman for the Democratic nomination, using the war as a key issue. But Weicker said this won't get him "off the hook" unless the unknown Lamont appears likely to win the state's August 8 primary.

Weicker-Lieberman II would have enough political novelty to make it one of the most closely watched contests in the nation: a rematch between two giants in national politics, and a referendum on the Iraq war. Weicker said his decision will come in mid to late spring.

In Connecticut, 42 percent of voters are registered as unaffiliated, the largest bloc, which could help Weicker as a third-party candidate. Meanwhile, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 51 percent of Connecticut voters overall and 74 percent of Democrats disagree with Lieberman on the Iraq war.

Weicker has a history of defying political odds. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1970 after just one term in the House. And after breaking with the Republican party, he won the governor's office as an independent in 1990.

But Weicker's foremost claim to fame is that, as a freshman Republican senator on the Watergate committee, he took a chance by hounding the Nixon administration well before other Republicans followed suit.

"Instead of his political doom, it made him," says Barry Sussman, a former editor at the Washington Post and the coauthor of Weicker's memoir, Maverick: A Life in Politics.

"I would never underestimate Lowell Weicker once he seizes on an issue he cares about," Sussman said. "The least that can be said is that he is putting a very important issue before the voters of Connecticut."

But Weicker must also deal with the legacy of the income tax he signed into law as governor, making Connecticut one of the most heavily taxed states in the nation--certainly a political liability.

POLITICOS STILL TALK ABOUT the highly effective "sleeping bear" campaign ad in 1988 that mocked Weicker's girth and listed the number of Senate votes he had missed. The underdog Lieberman painted Weicker as out of touch with the state and won a tight race with some support from Republicans tired of the liberal senator.

Today, Lieberman would win 65 percent of the vote against Weicker in a one-on-one race, according to the Quinnipiac poll. But a Rasmussen Reports poll late last year was less encouraging: Lieberman won just 54 percent to Weicker's 32 percent.