... and why Lieberman can't win his and shoultn't try

Keeping Joseph Lieberman in the United States Senate is clearly in the national interest. One of the most ethical, sincere, thoughtful and balanced of senators, he stands as a monument to nonpartisan common sense in an increasingly shrill and polarized partisan environment.

Keeping Joseph Lieberman in the United States Senate is clearly in the national interest. One of the most ethical, sincere, thoughtful and balanced of senators, he stands as a monument to nonpartisan common sense in an increasingly shrill and polarized partisan environment.

But he is in the process of committing suicide. By insisting on running in Connecticut’s Democratic primary against anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, he is in a fight he won’t win and, in the process, destroying his chances in the general election, which he can win.

As my populist and liberal friend Bill Curry discovered when he defeated the Democratic Party establishment’s candidate for governor, Rep. John Larson, in the primary of 1994, primaries in Connecticut are notoriously polarized. The right dominates the GOP nominating process just as surely as the left controls that of the Democrats. This is no place for a centrist to thrive.

If Lieberman simply skips the primary and runs as an independent, forcing a three-way race, he will win overwhelmingly. The larger Connecticut electorate adores him and will happily desert either party to vote for his reelection.

But in an August Democratic primary, with its low turnout and ideologically skewed voters, he faces decapitation. As surely as an American soldier on patrol in Iraq, his very presence in the Democratic primary provides a tempting target for those who want to vent their frustration at American foreign policy.

Those who back Lieberman will stay home in a primary. Those who shine with passionate intensity against him will surely vote.

Scott Rasmussen has Lieberman clinging to a narrow 45-41 lead over Lamont, based largely on his name recognition. Other pollsters give the Senate a larger margin. But the inevitable dynamics of this primary are likely to flow toward the challenger as he picks up money, support and recognition and offers a way to do something there is no other way to do: Vote against the war.

Lieberman’s supporters argue that if he loses the primary he can always then run as an independent. Technically that is not true. He would have to file his nominating petitions as an independent before the primary.

But politically it is a failed choice as well. If Lieberman loses the primary, the defeat will empower Lamont and make him a viable candidate in November. Like a parasite, he will thrive on the nutrients in the senator’s blood and use them to animate his candidacy. But if Lieberman withdraws from the primary (even if his name has to remain on the ballot), he denies Lamont that victory. Without it, the insurgent can never amass the resources and credibility he would need to run and win in November.

Lieberman speaks of his loyalty to the Democratic Party. Obviously, if he wins as an independent, he will continue to vote with his party in the Senate and will continue to call himself a Democrat. But this misguided party loyalty may help to elect Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger. If Lieberman is so weakened by a primary defeat that he fades as a front-runner in the general election, we will see a three-way race that anyone can win.

Lieberman’s ads attacking Lamont are pathetic. His media adviser, Carter Eskew, summons the ghosts of his past success by resurrecting ads that depict former Gov. Lowell Weicker as a bear, now encouraging Lamont to seek to avenge Weicker’s 1988 Senate defeat by beating Lieberman, the man who slew him. It’s an argument that is far too complex for the average voter and too remote to matter even if they understand it.

One hopes that Lieberman remembers the parable of Jacob Javits, the former New York senator whose tenure was much like Lieberman’s. A liberal Republican who never marched to the beat of his party’s drummer, Javits faced a primary from Alfonse D’Amato from the right wing of the GOP.

Had Javits simply run as an independent (in New York at the time that meant running on the Liberal Party line), he would easily have been elected. But because he lost in the primary, when he did run as a Liberal Party candidate he ran a poor third. Splitting the progressive vote, he so crippled the Democratic candidate, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, that D’Amato won by a hair.

This column is a plea to the senator: Don’t let hubris, overconfidence, unfounded optimism or even muddled confusion lead you to your death in the Democratic primary. We need you too much in Washington.

Morris, a former political adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race.