NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who once occupied the lofty No. 2 spot on his party's presidential ticket, is too Republican for some Democrats.
The three-term lawmaker, a strong advocate of the Iraq War, proponent of some GOP policies and recipient of a kiss from President Bush, has frustrated several national Democrats and angered enough in his home state to draw a primary challenger.
"I think it's a challenge for Lieberman to reconnect to the rank-and-file of the party and prove he is an authentic Democrat," said John McNamara, chairman of the New Britain Democratic Town Committee.
Bumper stickers spotted in Connecticut read, "Anybody but Joe — I want a real Democrat in '06." Campaign buttons show Bush and Lieberman in an embrace, with the words, "The Kiss: Too Close for Comfort."
In February 2005, after Bush's State of the Union speech, the president hugged Lieberman and planted a kiss on his right cheek.
Call it the buss that launched a challenge.
Ned Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich businessman, is trying to snatch the Democratic nomination from Lieberman, arguing that the 64-year-old senator is "Republican-lite."
"One thing I hear wherever I go, to all audiences, is, 'Come on Democrats, be a constructive alternative, speak loudly and proudly for what you believe, no more mumbling.'" Lamont said.
While Lamont's arguments have struck a chord with many Democrats, Lieberman holds a considerable advantage in money, name recognition and party backing. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama recently traveled to Connecticut to offer a vocal defense of his colleague.
On Thursday, Lieberman launched his first television ads in a decade, addressing the war debate head on.
"I already know that some of you feel passionately against my position in Iraq. I respect your views, and while we probably won't change each others' minds, I hope we can still have a dialogue and find common ground on all the issues where we do agree," Lieberman says in the ad.
Still, the Democratic discontent remains loud.
Edward Anderson is a blogger who helped a friend set up the Web site, http://www.DumpJoe.com., in December 2004, angered by Lieberman's continued support of the Iraq war.
"In Joe's hometown, I can't find a Joe booster. If they are, they're a Republican," said Anderson, who lives in New Haven.
"I think that there's a significant number of Democrats who are disappointed in the senator's stand on the war," said John Stafstrom, a Lieberman supporter and chairman of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee. "He has always had some problems with the more liberal wing of the party anyway. This is a perfect excuse for people to show their displeasure with him."
On May 20, some 1,607 Democratic delegates will gather at the state convention. The majority winner is the party-endorsed candidate, but if Lamont garners 15 percent of the vote, he can force a primary. Even if he doesn't succeed, he can petition his way onto the primary ballot on Aug. 8.
McNamara estimates that more than half of New Britain's 31 delegates are leaning toward backing Lamont.
Lieberman has surprised several Democrats with personal calls asking for their support at the convention. He also raised the prospect of running as an independent, a prospect that could boost the Republicans if he and Lamont split the Democratic vote.
Lieberman was first elected to the Senate in 1988, ousting longtime Republican Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. On foreign and defense policies, he has been a moderate, often aligning himself with the Republicans. But on issues such as abortion rights, gay rights and civil rights, he remains a liberal Democrat.
In 2000, Al Gore picked Lieberman to be his vice presidential running mate. Four years later, with Gore out of the picture, Lieberman made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Lieberman traditionally has been one of the highest vote-getters in Connecticut elections, capturing 63 percent of the vote in 2000 while running both for the vice presidency and the Senate.
Brent Dreher, 24, a student at Southern Connecticut State University who recently attended a Lamont speech, said a senator with Lieberman's national stature and experience should not be penalized because of his stance on the war.
"He's been in there long enough," Dreher said. "I don't see any reason to just automatically vote him out because of that one thing."
Ellen Camhi, the Democratic town committee chairwoman in Stamford, said many Democrats are supporting Lieberman.
"He's been there for us. He's been a good senator. While they may disagree with him on a couple of issues, they still support the man, his integrity and what he's done as a senator," Camhi said.
A Quinnipiac University poll, taken in March when Lamont announced his candidacy, showed Lieberman with support from 68 percent of registered Democrats to Lamont's 13 percent.
"It's still hard to imagine Lieberman being upset by Lamont. It's going to take a Herculean task I think," said poll director Douglas Schwartz.
Lieberman has raised $4.7 million for his re-election. Lamont, who founded a telecommunications company, raised more than $700,000 during the first three months of the year, more than half of it from his personal wealth.
Lieberman has likened the challenge to an "old-fashioned kitchen table debate within the Democratic family." His campaign spokesman, Sean Smith, dismissed the senator's detractors, arguing that many are party activists.
"The people who are engaged in this race right now are a certain type of voter," Smith said. "Most of the people who vote on Aug. 8 are living their lives right now and are not paying attention to this race."