The Anti-Joe

Ned Lamont is an unlikely insurgent.

The founder of a small cable company that specializes in telecommunications systems for college campuses, Lamont is a wealthy man who speaks with the measured cadence of one who earns his living making deals, not political speeches. Yet the Greenwich businessman has got Connecticut Democrats all wired up: Lamont promises a primary run against Senator Joe Lieberman, an entrenched incumbent with national stature, a flush campaign account -- and a firm hold on state party regulars that resembles the grip of an old-time political machine.

Lamont was, in fact, moved to challenge Lieberman himself in part because he could find no established Connecticut politician to take on the senator.

His journey began last fall, when Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha stirred Democrats around the country with his declaration that the Iraq War was a failure and that the troops should start coming home. Lamont found himself aghast at Lieberman's response: The senator endorsed George W. Bush's stay-the-course policy. “Does America have a good plan for doing this, a strategy for victory in Iraq?” the senator wrote in a column in -- of all places -- The Wall Street Journal. “Yes, we do.”

A furious Lamont, whose only stint in elective office was as a town selectman in Greenwich, tried to enlist more prominent Democrats to challenge Lieberman. They all turned him down.

“It's kind of like General Motors, isn't it?” Lamont said in an interview, comparing a politician's ascent to the climb up the corporate ladder. “If you're assistant vice president, then you go to executive vice president and then maybe president. You don't challenge things like this.”

So Lamont decided to take Lieberman on himself. It is, to say the least, no contest of equals.

* * *

Lieberman has held public office in Connecticut since 1970. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988 and has pulled in upwards of 60 percent of the vote in his reelection contests. He leads comfortably in early polls that match him against Lamont or former governor Lowell Weicker, who briefly threatened to challenge Lieberman over the war. With more than three decades in public office, Lieberman's favor bank overflows with chits he can call in.

The most significant of these? His financial hold on the party apparatus. Lieberman provided nearly $1 million to the state party in 2000, the year he ran simultaneously for reelection to the Senate and as Al Gore's running mate. The senator is up front about the consequences a primary would have on the state party's treasury: If he must fend off a challenger, money just won't be available to Connecticut Democrats for their own campaign operations, their May convention, or for tough, targeted House races against Republicans Chris Shays and Rob Simmons. “A credible primary challenge would make that difficult,” Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith says.

Lieberman, said one state party official, has been “incredibly generous” to the party in the past -- a generosity the hierarchy clearly would like him to sustain.

The Hartford convention coming up in May is likely to be the scene of the campaign's first showdown. To force a primary through convention rules, Lamont would have to be endorsed by 15 percent of delegates. That's a substantial threshold -- especially at an event for which Lieberman's contributions provide support.

It's so substantial, in fact, that a federal court in 2003 threw out as unconstitutional a state law that had granted access to the primary ballot solely to candidates who could win 15 percent of party delegates. The Connecticut legislature was then forced to enact a new ballot-access law that gives candidates the ability to get on the ballot by collecting petitions. This is clearly Lamont's most likely route.

* * *

As it happens, gathering petition signatures is just the type of political operation at which the grassroots activists who've been drawn to Lamont excel. The signature drive must begin in late April, and Tom Swan, Lamont's campaign manager, says he intends to collect 30,000 signatures, about double the required number, before the state convention. “It's not going to be hard for us to get on the ballot,” Swan says.

Winning, though, is another matter. Just five years ago, Lieberman was a Democratic icon. When Gore picked him for vice president -- the first Jew ever on a national ticket -- his anointment seemed to please the party's notoriously fractious sects. Traditional liberals got goose bumps at the elevation of a Jewish candidate. At the same time, centrists of the Democratic Leadership Council, still dominant after Bill Clinton's two terms in office, were just as pleased to have one of their own.

Since then, Lieberman has alienated many Democrats with his pro-war stance, his vote to halt a filibuster against Justice Samuel Alito, his frequent support of Bush, and his coziness with Republicans generally. Liberal blogs buzz with all manner of alleged Lieberman indiscretions, including a friendly interview with conservative media personality Sean Hannity and a fund-raiser held on Lieberman's behalf by well-known Republican lobbyists. Lieberman's voting record in 2005 was more conservative than that of any other senator from a blue state, according to National Journal's annual analysis of liberal and conservative votes.

“You're not going to lose a senator, you're going to gain a Democrat,” Lamont tells skeptics.

Indeed, Republicans in the state are more favorably inclined toward Lieberman's reelection than are Democrats, according to recent polls. Case in point: The embattled Shays just endorsed Lieberman, forcing other top Republicans to disavow rumors of an official cross-endorsement and prompting Lieberman's campaign to nix the idea as well. Even so, a clear majority of Democrats at this stage say they want the senator reelected.

Still, Lamont says, “I'm not afraid of the challenge.” He courts town Democratic committees in hopes of making a strong showing among convention delegates. Besides challenging Lieberman on the war, Lamont pushes for universal health care, a tried-and-true cause among the rank and file and an issue Lamont says he understands as a businessman burdened by insurance costs.

There's little doubt, though, that his campaign is fueled by the energy of former Howard Dean supporters who have stayed in the political game in Connecticut. Indeed, the Lieberman-Lamont dust-up may turn out to be less a battle over Iraq than a test of whether the remains of Dean's network, in league with Internet activists, can make good on their claims that they represent a disillusioned rank and file and can -- or should -- wield new power within the Democratic Party.

It's a quirk of fate for Lieberman, who initially won his Senate seat with an upstart campaign against the incumbent Weicker -- running simultaneously to Weicker's left, as a Democrat, and to his right, as more socially conservative. The straddle has served Lieberman well electorally. Now it just might trip him up.

Marie Cocco writes a column syndicated by The Washington Post Writers' Group.