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Lieberman's support of McCain frays ties to Democratic friends


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By Mark Leibovich

Published: July 14, 2008

WASHINGTON: Joseph Lieberman, the lapsed Democrat from Connecticut, strolled into the weekly lunch of the Senate Democrats, unaccompanied by a food taster.

He greeted his colleagues, including some who felt he should not have been there last Tuesday. He ate his lunch (salad, eschewing the macaroni and cheese) and sat through a discussion about gasoline prices and Medicare.

Then the conversation veered into the danger zone, the presidential election - specifically, Senator John McCain's recent votes, or nonvotes, on energy policy.

At which point Lieberman walked out.

"I just didn't feel it was appropriate for me to be there," Lieberman explained the next day.

"It was the right thing to do," said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, who said that a colleague approached him afterward to complain about Lieberman's showing up. "This is a delicate situation," Durbin summed up.

It has grown increasingly so for Lieberman, once his party's vice-presidential candidate and now a self-styled "independent Democrat." He has zigzagged the country on behalf of McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and, in recent weeks, amplified his criticism of Senator Barack Obama to a point that has infuriated many of his Democratic colleagues.

At least two have asked Lieberman to tone down his rhetoric against Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, two colleagues said, and at least three have advised Lieberman against speaking at the Republican convention, a prospect he has said he would entertain.

Clearly, Lieberman's already precarious marriage with the Democrats has reached a new level of discord and could be approaching divorce, if not necessarily a remarriage into the Republican Party. The strain has been rooted largely in Lieberman's steadfast support for the Bush administration's engagement in Iraq and his hawkish views on Iran. He has not ruled out switching parties but has stopped short of saying he has moved so far from the Democratic Party - or, in his view, the other way around - that he is at a point of no return.

"I don't have any line that I have in my mind," Lieberman said in an interview. "If it happened, I'd know it when I saw it."

Lieberman was leaning back in a chair in his Senate office, wearing a loose-fitting pinstriped suit, grinning a lot and appearing quite comfortable while describing "my uncomfortable position."

"I think most people in his caucus expected Joe's views on national security, but I think the extent of his embrace of McCain has surprised some people," said Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and one of Lieberman's closest friends in the Senate. "That's taking an extra step."

Democrats complain that he has gone even further with his ramped-up attacks on Obama. "The fact that the spokesperson for Hamas would say they would welcome the election of Senator Obama really does raise the question, Why?" Lieberman said recently on CNN. A few days later on Fox News he called Obama "naïve" in his views on Iran.

In his office on Wednesday, Lieberman spoke of what he called Obama's "remarkable change of position" on a variety of issues.

"Senator Obama has really moved," Lieberman said. "Since he clinched the nomination a month ago, in my opinion he has altered and nuanced more big positions more quickly than I can remember any other presidential nominees."

This line of criticism was consistent with Republican attacks last week against Obama. When asked whether he had received "talking points" from the McCain campaign or the Republican National Committee, Lieberman replied, "I usually don't." He added that he was having a blast with McCain on the campaign trail, accompanying him on a trip to Colombia and Mexico this month. He has been a regular on McCain's Three Amigos circuit, which includes Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina.

All of which has angered his Democratic friends, or former friends.

"I think there's a difference in the way Joe has been treated now by people in his caucus compared to the beginning of last year," Collins said. That was when Lieberman returned to the Senate after losing the Connecticut Democratic primary, running as an "independent Democrat" and prevailing in the general election.

Lieberman continued to vote with his party most of the time, while the Democrats, clinging to a 51-49 majority, smiled tightly and tried to hold on to their flight-risk colleague.

It has been tough, though. Lieberman has declared himself "liberated" from the shackles of party affiliation and seemed to delight in bucking Democrats on foreign policy matters. "There were times in my career where I really wanted to be supported, dare I say liked, by everyone," Lieberman said in the interview.

Other prominent Democrats suspect that Lieberman is acting, in part, out of spite against a party whose voters have rejected him.

"My own sense is that he was just bitterly disappointed by doing so poorly in 2004," said Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, referring to Lieberman's early flameout as a presidential candidate.

In his office, Lieberman had practiced answers and nondenial denials for the litany of questions he had received: whether he would be McCain's running mate ("I'm not really interested, and I don't expect to be asked"), whether he would take a cabinet post in a McCain administration (he is interested only in representing Connecticut in the Senate) and whether he is concerned that he is getting some of his lowest poll numbers in his home state in years (no).

But the question that seemed to stump him was whether he would speak at the Republican convention. His face took on a slightly pained expression. If he does speak, "I would not go to speak to attack Barack Obama," he said. "I would go to say why I'm supporting John McCain."

What is clear is that Lieberman will not be attending the Democratic convention for the first time since he started going in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was nominated in New York.

"I'll miss it," he said of not attending the Democratic convention, in Denver. "I feel badly about this turn of events."

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