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Iraq Dominates Senate Races in Rhode Island, Connecticut

October 24, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

MARARET WARNER: Tonight, we look at two Senate campaigns in neighboring northeastern states, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Both races have been dominated by the same issue: the Iraq war. And both feature incumbents — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — who are known for their independent streaks, yet are under fire by their opponents for being too close to President Bush.

In Rhode Island, first-term Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate, is being challenged by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a former state attorney general. And in Connecticut’s three-way race, three-term Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, running as an independent, is facing Democrat Ned Lamont, a wealthy businessman who beat him in the August primary, as well as Republican Alan Schlesinger, a former state legislator.

For insight into these races, we turn to Rick Klein, who’s been covering the Rhode Island campaign for the Boston Globe, and Mark Pazniokas, political reporter for the Hartford Courant.

And welcome, Rick and Mark. Rick, beginning with you and Rhode Island, Chafee is reportedly having a very difficult time. Just how vulnerable is he and why?

RICK KLEIN, The Boston Globe: Well, Rhode Island is one of the most Democratic states in the country. So coming into this election cycle, Democrats have had their eyes on this seat. They see a Republican in a northeastern Democratic state like Rhode Island and they think this is a real opportunity.

And really what’s happened here is that, even though voters know Lincoln Chafee very well — his father was a senator; he’s been in the Senate since 1999 — and they respect his independence, what the Democratic candidate, Whitehouse, has been able to do is to tie him to the president and say really his vote for the majority leader in the Senate means that the Republican agenda will be empowered.

So it hasn’t been about Lincoln Chafee. It hasn’t been a referendum on Lincoln Chafee. It really has been a referendum on President Bush. And if it is about President Bush and not Lincoln Chafee, Lincoln Chafee could very well lose.

Rhode Island race

MARGARET WARNER: Now, this is what Democrats have been trying to do all around the country, but you're saying it's working particularly well in Rhode Island because it is such a Democratic state?

RICK KLEIN: That's right. That's right. There's more of a predisposition to buy into an argument like that in a state like that and where President Bush's approval rating is in the low 20s, which is 10 or 15 points lower than where it is nationally.

So it does have a particular resonance in a state like that, a state that went higher for John Kerry than almost any other state in the country. People are very much upset about Bush and the Republican agenda, and they're ready for a change.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mark Pazniokas, now in Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, whom we all know, is under attack for the same thing, for having been too close to the president on many issues, yet he enjoys this apparently commanding lead. Usually third-party candidates just collapse. What happened?

MARK PAZNIOKAS, Hartford Courant: Well, this isn't really a true third-party candidacy. He is running as the incumbent. He still has a strong Democratic identification even though he's running as a petitioning candidacy. And you don't have the same dynamic that you see in Rhode Island.

In Connecticut, the battle does not include shaping who controls the Senate. If Lamont wins or Lieberman wins, the national Democrats feel we can live with either one because we're going to have a Democrat coming out of that state.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Ned Lamont seemed in the primary against Lieberman really on fire. Has he kept up that kind of energy and campaign style or has he stalled in some way?

MARK PAZNIOKAS: Well, the roles of the two men have really changed. In the primary, Senator Lieberman had a very muddied message. He was trying to convince Democrats that he remained a good Democrat. He talked about his 90 percent Democratic voting record, but he also described himself as somebody who is above partisanship when it comes to issues of great moment.

And that's part of his identification, and that was a tough message to sell. Lamont had a very easy message in the primary. He was the anti-war candidate. It was the most important issue in the primary; it remains an important issue. And it was a very clean and easy message to sell.

Now in the general election, Senator Lieberman is almost liberated. He does not have to talk about his good Democratic credentials. He can stress that he is bipartisan on many issues. His support, the polls show, come overwhelmingly from Republicans. He's also getting a majority of unaffiliateds. And he's still keeping a third of Democrats, so he is...

Candidate debates

MARGARET WARNER: OK, let me just interrupt you there, because we're going to go to a debate excerpt in a few minutes from that race, but first of all, I mean, since the Iraq war and support for President Bush seem to be the main points of attack against both these incumbents, let's look at two debate excerpts where they spared over that. And the first we'll go to is in Rhode Island from a debate last week between Senator Chafee and Sheldon Whitehouse.

SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE (R), Rhode Island: Well, as every Rhode Islander knows, I've not actually been in sync with the president's agenda. And when they look at the top of the statehouse and they see the independent man, I think they can think, "There's our senator, Senator Chafee, voting independently for our country and for Rhode Island."

But for the last 30 years, Rhode Island has had bipartisan representation in the Congress. For 30 years, we've had a voice on both sides of the aisle. And Rhode Islanders have come to like that. You can vote your conscience and still deliver for Rhode Island.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE, Democratic Senate Candidate: Although I admire Senator Chafee for the votes he has taken against the president, particularly his vote on Iraq, by and large he votes with his party, in non-election years as much as 82 percent of the time with the Republicans. And most tellingly, he casts that all-important vote in favor of Republican leadership in the Senate.

And once he sets that train in motion, then all of the consequences that we've lived through for the last six years of Republican leadership in the Senate will continue to happen. And although Lincoln Chafee may occasionally dissent, the course will be set, and my contention is that we need a new and different direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Rick, it's often said that voters don't make these tactical voting decisions. But what you're saying that in Rhode Island, they actually are thinking about who the new senator will, quote, "organize with."

RICK KLEIN: Yes, it's really an interesting thing. There's a lot of voters that I talked to in reporting in Rhode Island who say, "I like Lincoln Chafee a lot. I liked his dad very much. I continue to like Lincoln Chafee as a senator. But it's time for someone to be a check on the Republicans."

And so it is a bit of a nuanced argument. It's more complicated than just voting for the guy you like. But it is something that is being able to hit home. And I think it's after six years of the Bush presidency that it's able to hit, and particularly how unpopular the agenda has been over the last few years.

MARGARET WARNER: And if Whitehouse is elected, where would he be, in terms of on the Democratic spectrum, in terms of what to do going forward in Iraq? In other words, how far, quote, "left" or liberal is he in his position, in terms of whether to get out right away or set a timetable, the whole roster of possible choices?

RICK KLEIN: Well, he's affiliated himself with what I guess you would consider the most liberal of the options, which would be to require a troop withdrawal by the middle of next year. This is a small minority. I think only 11 or 12 Democratic senators have signed onto that.

He's also though said that he'd very closely follow Senator Jack Reed, the Democratic, the senior senator from Rhode Island, and himself a member of the Armed Services Committee and a point person on Iraq issues. So I think you'd see him very closely hewing to what Senator Reed has called for, which is requiring a troop deployment to begin by the end of this year, but not setting an end point for a deadline.

Connecticut race

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now let's look at an excerpt from a debate that was last night in New London, Connecticut, featuring all three candidates in that race, Lieberman, Lamont and Schlesinger, the Republican.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), Connecticut: I believe we have to pull together across party lines all of us who do not favor a deadline for withdrawal and work urgently to succeed in Iraq so we can bring our troops home and not compromise the security of the people of Connecticut or America.

NED LAMONT (D), Candidate for U.S. Senate: I believe we got ourselves in this mess in Iraq not because we asked too many questions but because we asked too few. We're going to start asking the tough questions again. Question number one: How can we get our troops home safely, securely, give the Maliki government incentives to stand up and take responsibility for their own defense. I think Joe Lieberman and George Bush and "stay the course" strategy, that's the recipe for failure.

ALAN SCHLESINGER, Republican Senate Candidate: The senator likes to bring up partisanship all the time. If you follow the record, partisanship was not the problem in Iraq. Being a crutch for the Maliki government may be the problem. It's our duty to control that; it's our duty to say how and when, because we have sacrificed our lives, we are pumping $2 billion every week into this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mark, as pointed out, chances are definitely one of these Democrats is going to win, but how far apart are they? In other words, what difference would it make inside the Democratic caucus if it's a Lieberman versus Lamont on the Iraq war, what to do ahead?

MARK PAZNIOKAS: Well, their position on the war remains very different. Ned Lamont would have voted with the minority of Democrats to set a one-year deadline for withdrawing from Iraq. He still is in favor of setting a hard deadline, although he has shown some flexibility, saying that 18 months might be reasonable, but the point is the Iraqis have got to know that there is a deadline to be met. And they have got to, you know, begin taking control of their own government.

Senator Lieberman remains unalterably opposed to a deadline, although he does talk in terms of encouraging the Iraqis to step up but without a deadline. The words he uses over and over again is that it would be a recipe for disaster.

Organizing the Democrats

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, briefly, how certain is it that, if Lieberman is elected or re-elected, that he will in fact organize with the Democrats?

MARK PAZNIOKAS: Lieberman has pledged he will organize with the Democrats. There is some doubt in the state because of all the support he's getting from Republicans here, as well as some tacit support from the White House.

But he says the only circumstance under which he would consider organizing with the Republicans is if his seniority was taken away. But he says that is not likely to happen because, if it's 51-49 Democrats, the Democrats are going to need everybody they can get, so they would have no incentive to strip him of his seniority. If the Democrats win, it's going to be by a slim margin, so he figures he's safe there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Rick, the national Republican committees have certainly tried to influence the race in Rhode Island. How much did they help Chafee, and is that still a help or is it a hindrance at this point?

RICK KLEIN: Well, Chafee had a primary of his own about a month ago. And in that case, he had a more conservative candidate rubbing against him, someone who aligned himself more closely with the national Republican Party. But the national Republican officials made a calculation that really no one more conservative than Lincoln Chafee could hold onto that seat.

So they spent a lot of money on his behalf. And Laura Bush came in and did a fundraiser. Karl Rove helped out a little bit, as well. And that has been something that Sheldon Whitehouse has talked about and said there's a reason that they wanted to save Lincoln Chafee. It's not because they like him; it's because they need him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you both. Rick and Mark, thanks.

RICK KLEIN: Thank you.

MARK PAZNIOKAS: You're welcome.