Lamont broadens his focus as November rematch looms

CANTON, Conn. – Clad in the sneakers and corduroys of a local, Ned Lamont ambled through the local fair in this town of 9,000 with a new challenge for his Senate run: becoming more than just an anti-war candidate.

Lamont’s Sept. 13 speech at Yale Law School, he said during a weekend interview, was aimed at outlining his foreign policy “beyond the war in Iraq … we [have] certainly hit the war head-on.” Preparing a pivot to healthcare that began with Monday’s visit to a low-income clinic, Lamont also sought to broaden his appeal beyond his left-leaning base.

“Corporate guys know the healthcare system is broken,” Lamont said. “They also understand that at SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and AFSCME,” a large public-employees union.

Yet Lamont acknowledges that he is a “corporate guy” himself, a digital-cable magnate who spent $4 million to defeat Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) in the Democratic primary and has not ruled out more self-funding. Lamont touts his business success as proof that he can appeal to employers and employees alike with a plan for universal healthcare.

One facet of Lamont’s plan is permitting small businesses to form pools and buy into a government system based on the health coverage that members of Congress receive – similar to a proposal Lieberman and senior Democrats backed in April. Their bill remains stalled in the Senate Finance Committee.

Jennifer Duffy, an editor at the Cook Political Report, said a broader agenda would be crucial for Lamont to sustain the momentum of his primary win last month.

“Single-issue candidates, especially in general elections, tend not to do that well,” Duffy said. “Voters want more than that ... He does have to expand his universe a bit, and, frankly, Lieberman has.”

Keeping their back turned to Lamont as the candidate greeted Girl Scouts and grandmothers were Ari Iconomopoulos, in his 30s, and Steve Wilbur, a Navy veteran in his 60s, both of Canton. The younger man said he doubted any politician’s ability to expand access to health insurance in the face of opposition from “powerful lobbyists,” while the older man’s vote seemed to hinge more on Lieberman than Lamont.

“Lieberman’s done a lot for this state,” Wilbur said, although he questioned the politicization of last year’s fight to prevent closure of the New London submarine base in eastern Connecticut. “[Gov.] Jodi Rell [R], on TV, says she saved the sub base. Lieberman says, ‘I saved the sub base.’ Somebody’s full of crap.”

Robert Hamilton, spokesman for the Electric Boat facility that services the base, said every state official played a role in keeping it open, and Lieberman’s latest ad uses the sub base to illustrate his willingness to transcend party lines. Most of Lamont’s ads have focused on criticizing Lieberman for his support of the war.

Lieberman spokeswoman Tammy Sun contended that Lamont remains a one-issue candidate with a narrow anti-war base.

“Our campaign is focused on a positive agenda, while Ned Lamont continues to offer voters nothing more than negative attacks,” Sun said. “Joe Lieberman has a record of results; Ned Lamont has only a record of rhetoric.”

More than six months of active campaigning, however, has allowed Lieberman’s campaign to use Lamont’s recorded statements against him, countering the Lamont camp’s avid tally of Lieberman’s missed Senate votes on Iraq and healthcare. After Lamont’s staff reached back to 1994 and Lieberman’s opposition to the Clinton healthcare plan, a Lieberman release pointed to healthcare votes Lamont missed during town board meetings in 1992.

John Orman, a professor of politics at Connecticut’s Fairfield University who mounted a primary run of his own against Lieberman last year, compared the senator’s tone to that of another embattled incumbent, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

“Both Lieberman and Shays … they’re really reacting. They think negative campaigns are after them, bloggers are after them, the media is after them,” Orman said. Shays endorsed Lieberman earlier this year.

Democrats are looking to Lamont to energize the party’s base and help push one or more of Connecticut’s House challengers into office, and Lamont’s new emphasis on health insurance coverage and the Medicare drug benefit tracks with the mainstream Democratic message. But according to Orman, Lamont’s fate in November rests on his appeal to the rest of the electorate.

“If he wants to win, he’s got to keep hammering home [his points] to independents and moderate Republicans,” Orman said.

Polls show that the lack of a viable Republican Senate candidate has diverted significant GOP support to Lieberman, who took heat from the Democratic establishment for signing Republican strategists for his independent run. Almost half of all Connecticut voters are registered as unaffiliated with either party.

At the Canton fair, where residents were painfully aware of the weekend funeral for a 19-year-old Marine from a nearby town, Lamont offered a preview of other issues on his plate in the coming months. He decried the 6,000-plus earmarks in last year’s transportation bill and the twofold jump in the number of registered Washington lobbyists since President Bush took office.

“[Lawmakers] haven’t done a damn thing. … They have all been there much too long,” Lamont said.

Lamont has vowed not to accept PAC or lobbyist donations, though one prominent state-level lobbyist donated a small amount to his primary bid. A fundraising e-mail his campaign sent Tuesday asked for pledges of $50 or below.

Lieberman has amplified his money chase meanwhile, and will hold a November event sponsored by Michael Bloomberg, the Republican mayor of New York City.

This week’s furious rejoinders on healthcare are certain to shift back to Iraq before the end of the month, when Lieberman plans a speech on the war. He gave a national-security speech of his own on Friday without once mentioning Iraq.

That omission, Lamont said, making a subtle connection, “was a little surprising. … George W. Bush has traditionally said that Iraq is the central front [in the war on terrorism].”