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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman Brushes Up On His Race for Senate

September 26, 2000|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

STAMFORD, Conn. — He posed with cheering children and signed autographs for excited supporters. He schmoozed with donors and fielded questions from local reporters.

All in all, vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman's visit Monday to his home state of Connecticut was another packed day in his campaign for . . . Senate?

Lieberman, who decided to continue his Senate reelection effort after Vice President Al Gore tapped him to be his running mate, was in the unusual position of trying to campaign for both seats at once--without really talking about either one.

Officially, Lieberman's daylong trip through the fall-tinged Connecticut countryside was billed as a Senate campaign day. Gone was the usual stump speech in which he asks supporters to help elect him and Gore, though he did raise more than $3 million for the Democratic National Committee. Instead, the two-term senator spent the day boosting the prospects of three Democratic congressional candidates and doling out commendations to local heroes.

For most of the day, his dual candidacy was like a big elephant in the living room that everyone ignored. Sure, "Joe Lieberman 2000-U.S. Senate" placards papered the walls of a Shelton Boys and Girls Club gym. But the candidate only obliquely referred to his Senate seat, thanking his longtime backers in the state.

"I know that none of this would have been possible if it were not for the support and steadfast friendship that the people of Connecticut have given me," he said, standing on the deck of a Middletown restaurant in front of the sparkling Connecticut River, where he gave an award to a local environmentalist.

Lieberman has little need to campaign for his Senate seat--a Quinnipiac University poll released last week gives him a 53-point lead over his opponent, Waterbury Mayor Phil Giordano. But he has faced criticism that he should withdraw and let another Democrat run, which he still could do by Oct. 27. (According to the poll, Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal, the Democrat considered most likely to run in Lieberman's stead, would handily beat Giordano if he entered the race now.)

Giordano denounced Lieberman for not engaging fully in the Senate race and for not deciding whether to take part in a Senate debate scheduled for Oct. 19.

"If he chose to do both," Giordano said Monday, "he should fulfill his obligation to both."

Connecticut residents are split on Lieberman's dual candidacy, with 46% disapproving and 45% approving. This month, a Fairfield University professor filed a complaint with election officials about Lieberman's Senate candidacy, calling it frivolous. So far, officials have dismissed his complaint.

On Monday, Lieberman insisted that his dual candidacy wasn't designed to give him a backup if the Democratic ticket loses.

He said that although people are split on the issue, the Quinnipiac poll showed him with a record 80-point approval rating. "I and my extended family in Connecticut--that is, the people of Connecticut--have agreed to disagree," he said.

Lieberman's logic goes like this: If he were to drop out of the Senate race, there would not be time for the state to hold another primary, leaving the selection of the Democratic candidate in the hands of the 72-member Democratic State Central Committee. That, he says, would be undemocratic, taking the decision out of the hands of the people.

Connecticut Democratic leaders with which he conferred told him, "Stay in the race," he recounted. "If you get out, it's going to be chaos. The public's not going to have a real chance to make a decision."

If Lieberman stays in and wins both seats, however, Republican Gov. John Rowland will appoint someone--likely a Republican--to temporarily fill the Senate seat. A special election would be held in two years to fulfill the rest of the six-year term.

But state Democratic officials argue that the Democratic-controlled Legislature could force a special election earlier, speeding up the process. So far, most Democratic leaders are hewing to the party line, offering brief statements supporting Lieberman's decision.

"I think it's Joe's decision to make and I support him," Blumenthal said. "He's entitled to do it."

There was little concern among the supporters who came out to see the vice presidential candidate on Monday.

"I don't have a problem with it," said Derby resident Joe Ahearn, 68, who attended a rally at the Shelton Boys and Girls Club, where Lieberman honored a local businessman who helped build the center. "He's a good man, and the presidential race is too close to call."

However, outside on the corner, a man held a sign as Lieberman's motorcade sped by: "Connecticut Deserves Better, Joe."

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