ON THE GROUND. On judgment day, the mood at the Lieberman headquarters in the Hartford suburb of Rocky Hill is surprisingly upbeat. Young volunteers loaded up cars with signs and placards, heading out with directions and walk-lists in hand. Inside, people were dialing voters. I had dropped by to get a sense of how the Lieberman team feels about their election-day ground prospects.

As I walked down the hall to find campaign manager Sean Smith, I overheard a conversation among a few top staffers who were excited by reports that the Lamont campaign had thus far shown a limited presence around the state. That discussion may have been one part electoral uncertainty, one part false optimism -- or maybe one part truth. Whatever the case, the Lieberman folks did not seem particularly worried. Smith then sat down with me for 20 minutes to provide candid answers to some probing questions about their own field operation, all but a couple of which were shared on the record.

Before moving to the specifics, it is clear that the Lieberman campaign had really been caught flat-footed by Ned Lamont�s insurgent candidacy. Realizing the error of their candidate's overconfidence, they were then forced to pull out nearly every stop in the past three months -- and the last three weeks in particular -- to put the campaign in what Smith believes is a more-than-competitive ground position for today.

The hodge-podge, build-the-plane-while-in-flight field plan is far from perfect, as it would be in any case when a campaign that got started late is playing beat the clock. For example, one elemental problem from the start was recruiting qualified in-state people who were available on short notice in mid-2006. �Trying to find local talent here to build your field teams and run these regions was difficult for a couple of reasons,� admits Smith, a communications specialist with a specialty in ballot measures, who came on board March 5.

The two Democratic gubernatorial campaigns and other major-city office seekers had already �sucked up� some of the best local operatives well before it became clear that the Senate race would be competitive. That problem, said Smith, was compounded by the fact that �as you know, the activist base is not really with Joe Lieberman. So it was tough to build the kind of ground game we needed.�

Lieberman and his loyalists also made a nationwide call to its closest loyalists, many of whom had either worked in-state or in Washington for the senator, or for his vice presidential or presidential campaigns. �I have been amazed at the answer to this call,� said Smith, who is not from this cadre of Lieberman loyalists. �This is a guy who generates a remarkable amount of loyalty.� Because many that responded had media, organizational or other skills, these key volunteers were placed in the six regional offices or Rocky Hill HQs.

About a month ago, the campaign hired field director Tom Lindenfeld, who basically surveyed the situation and decided that paid field organizers was the only option. Smith says the Lieberman team has about 2,000 organizers on the ground today. He wouldn�t say what the split was between paid and canvassers and visibility teams and volunteer organizers but, not surprisingly, the majority are paid. �We started building the large-scale operation towards the end, and I think it�s had its intended effect of talking to people one-to-one,� said Smith. �We needed to signal to grasstops leaders in the communities that we would have a presence in their towns.�

This was no small chore because Lieberman had not tended to his support base and local leaders. �I would say that it wasn�t even a matter of re-establishing a ground presence but creating one,� Smith admits. �The only contested race this guy�s had is 1988, and that wasn�t really a ground game, turn-out-the-vote operation. But I will say this: The in-state Senate staff did their politics well, and so there�s a lot of relationships and support among political, labor and interest group establishment, if that�s the right word. It was transforming that into broad-based support among those groups� memberships that was the challenge, because they never had to do that or ask a lot of their members.�

�You play the hand you�re dealt with,� Smith said, summarizing nicely the patchwork, rushed effort the staff was forced to pull together with little time, landmines all around them. By taking so much for granted, their candidate had put them in a horrible position.

Meanwhile, the organic-volunteer model the Lamont team has deployed provides a striking contrast. �There are thousands of MoveOn members in Connecticut volunteering in the streets and thousands volunteering around the country making calls,� says MoveOn�s Tom Matzzie. �If we mobilized fewer than 2,000 people in Connecticut, I�ll eat a sock.�

Despite having to pay for workers that Lamont�s team had attracted as volunteers -- with all the risks that mercenary activists entail -- Smith cautioned that the Lamont team may end up looking eerily similar to the problems Howard Dean experienced in Iowa in 2004. �I will say that the comparison to Dean in Iowa with Lamont is a good one,� he said. �What I think we�re seeing with Lamont is the ability to project something that appears larger than it is.�

Smith didn�t cite specific city or town targets, but said Lieberman�s goal is 30 percent turnout or higher which, Smith believes, would �bode well� for Lieberman�s renomination. On the Hartford NPR station this morning, Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz said that increases in new registrations were 50 percent higher than normal, the result of about 14,500 unaffiliateds who registered Democrat, plus an almost identically large group who are new Democratic registrants. Lamont campaign manager Tom Swan told me yesterday he believes the unaffiliated converts will break disproportionately to Lamont.

I left Rocky Hill for Meriden, where I arrived at Lamont�s statewide HQ as one volunteer staffer was heading out the door toward the parking lot.

�We�re hearing that there is high turnout in parts of the state,� he said.

�Is that good?� I asked.

�We think so,� he replied.

�That�s what the Lieberman folks are saying,� I informed him.

�Well, one of us is wrong,� he shot back.

Somebody, indeed, is wrong. Soon enough we�ll know just who that is.

--Tom Schaller