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Kiss of Death?

Lieberman's unforgivable sin: He doesn't hate Bush.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The bloggers bring with them not only laptops and cash, but also vitriol. They have called Lieberman a "liar," a "weasel," a "wanker," "scum," and a "whiny ass titty baby," among other things. One Lamont supporter at O'Neill's wore a T-shirt he had bought on the Internet that read: "F-- Joe Lieberman." On July 4, marching in a parade in Willimantic, Lieberman was heckled and called a "warmonger" and a "traitor," according to press accounts. Also at the parade, Lamont supporters built a float with giant papier-mâché heads of Lieberman kissing President Bush, an allusion to an embrace the two shared at the 2005 State of the Union address. The float called Lieberman a "RAT"--a "Republican Apologist and Turncoat."

Such is the unanimity of contempt for Lieberman among a certain class of Connecticut Democrat that when I asked someone at O'Neill's whether he supported Lamont, the man--an Air America radio listener from Stamford named Joe--pointed to a button he wore on his cap. The button displayed the names of the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket. Lieberman's name had been blacked out.

The news gets better for Lamont. Last week, Lieberman announced that, if defeated in the primary, he would still run in November as a "petitioning Democrat." The phrase is the senator's way of staying in his party even if it rejects him. But it is just a phrase. As the bloggers point out, Connecticut law stipulates that only one Democrat can appear on the ballot. Lieberman would have to create a new party--one forbidden from incorporating under the name of an existing party--or run as an independent.

For the bloggers, Lieberman's announcement upped the stakes. Moulitsas began to keep a "whip count" of those national Democrats who have said they would support the primary winner--no matter who he is. On July 6, Moulitsas's list included John Kerry (who even declined to endorse Lieberman in the primary), Al Gore, Russ Feingold, Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Bob Menendez, and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.

Also on the list was New York senator Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, whose husband worked on Lieberman's first campaign and whose every utterance is treated as if it were a pronouncement from the Oracle at Delphi. "I want to be clear that I will support the nominee chosen by Connecticut Democrats in their pri mary," Clinton said in a prepared statement. Recently, and perhaps not coincidentally, Sen. Clinton hired a blogger, Salon.com writer Peter Daou, to work for her Friends of Hillary political action committee.

Lieberman has his defenders--including, one must re member, most of the likely Democratic primary voters (at least for now). Among national Democrats, Lieberman draws support from his senior colleague Chris Dodd, Delaware senator Joe Biden, California senator Barbara Boxer, Colorado senator Ken Salazar, Nebraska senator Ben Nelson, and Arkansas senator Mark Pryor. With the exception of Dodd and Boxer, all are moderates. Biden and Boxer plan to campaign for Lieberman, but otherwise support from these sources has been tepid and limited to endorsements.

Among the major interest groups, the AFL-CIO and the Human Rights Campaign have both endorsed Lieberman. Among bloggers, his most vocal, and perhaps sole, non-Republican supporter has been Marshall Wittmann, whose zig-zagging career trajectory--from the Christian Coalition to the Heritage Foundation to Sen. John McCain's staff to the Democratic Leadership Council--places him at a far remove from most Daily Kos readers. The feeling is mutual. Wittmann calls the progressive bloggers the "nutroots."

Lieberman's problem is that his most ardent defenders are Republicans, including talk show host Sean Hannity and liberal congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut. It is no stretch to say that Lieberman is every Republican's ideal Democrat, for reasons extending from his stances on some issues to his general demeanor and outlook on public life. "It's all Republicans who come up to me and say, 'I can't believe you're going against Lieberman,'" one Democrat from New Canaan told me. She added that such encounters have only hardened her support for Lamont.

At the beginning of last week's debate, Lieberman said, "Ned Lamont seems just to be running against me based on my stand on one issue, Iraq." That sentiment has been echoed throughout the campaign. Media coverage portrays the primary fight mainly as a contest between hawks and doves.