WASHINGTON – It's hard to find a Democrat with stronger credentials than Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. Six years ago he was the party's candidate for vice president of the United States. Two years ago he pounded the campaign trail seeking the party's nomination for president.
Who could have imagined that in 2006, third-party leaders would be pinning their hopes on the three-term Democratic senator seeking re-election as an independent?
Lieberman, who was defeated in the Connecticut Democratic primary two months ago by anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, says he has no intention of changing his political stripes if he wins re-election. Nonetheless, third-party officials say a win for the incumbent running as an independent could have a spillover effect for non-major party politics.
"It opens up possibilities [if Lieberman were to win]. Whenever we've seen a strong third-party showing, or an independent showing, it demonstrates that a lot of voters are willing to think outside of the narrow two-party politics," said Scott McLarty, Green Party spokesman.
Third parties historically have been dismissed by Republicans and Democrats as single-issue malcontents and derided for the perception that they are more likely to spoil elections rather than enhance them.
The major parties have been waging increasingly intense battles against the peripheral parties, third-party officials say, as major party candidates have been threatened by the lesser-funded, scrappier campaigns. Expensive certification standards are required to launch a non-major party, and a number of legal disputes have been funded by the major parties to dispute the legitimacy of third-party candidacies in recent years.
Despite those efforts, election observers point to a few shining moments for third-party candidates nationally.
In 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot gained a significant 19 percent of the popular vote on a conservative, clean-up-the-budget platform. Had Perot not run, critics say, Republican President George H.W. Bush likely would have picked up much of Perot's supporters. Instead, Bush lost to Democrat Bill Clinton 38 percent to 43 percent.
In 2000, Democrats blamed Green Party nominee Ralph Nader for siphoning off votes from Al Gore, which they said helped George W. Bush take the presidential victory. Critics argued that the slim support given to Nader made the difference in the election, which rested on the Florida election results, in which Bush beat Gore by fewer than 1,000 votes. Nader received 97,000 votes in Florida.
"Every time a third-party candidate runs — or an independent even wins a race, it adds to the public perception that a third-party candidate can win. That's one thing that we have to work against all the time," Jim Clymer, national chairman for the Constitution Party, said.
"My perception is that we're entering an era now where there's better reception to a third party than there has been in anywhere close to 100 years," Clymer added.
McLarty, the Green Party spokesman, brushed off criticism that his party was to blame for Gore's 2000 loss, noting that Gore won the popular vote. He said the Democratic Party made a number of mistakes during the election results dispute in Florida.
He added that, just like any other candidate, Green Party candidates aim to get elected. While Green candidates tend to appeal to those on the left of the Democratic Party, he feels his party also is gaining strength on issues like the Iraq war among Republicans and independents. The party's platform opposes Bush administration actions, saying "pre-emptive invasions" are illegal under international law. The party prefers to defer to the United Nations and other international bodies on most international crises.
While Perot and Nader generally drew from the political extremes of the major parties, Ronald Rapoport, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said he believes a Lieberman win could mean that a centrist gap is widening between the two major parties, giving third-party candidates room to pounce.
"In a sense, it's almost like there is this sort of ghost centrist party that no one has named, and Lieberman is a candidate of that group," Rapoport said.
Rapoport said third-party candidates often tend to stand behind one or two main issues. For Perot, it was fiscal responsibility. For Nader in 2000, it was the environment and a stance against big corporations. McLarty noted that single issue voters can be motivated to support third-party candidates.
"Very few Greens would support someone like H. Ross Perot, but his campaign certainly proved something that on certain issues, especially specific issues, a lot of American voters do, or are willing to adopt a third party," McLarty said.
Like the Perot campaign, third-party candidates can fuel issues that later tend to be picked up by the major parties. Raport said Perot's budget platform has been credited with helping to set in motion the GOP's "Contract With America" in 1994.
Clymer said non-major party candidates are also making "a strong showing" in a number of other races around the country, though he admits that being competitive as a third-party candidate doesn't necessarily mean being close to winning.
Maybe the biggest recent showing, Clymer said, was in the special election last December to replace the seat vacated by Rep. Christopher Cox, who was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. American Independent Party candidate Jim Gilchrist came in third, but won 25 percent of the vote. Republican John Campbell won the race with 44 percent, and the Democrat Steve Young took 28 percent. The American Independent Party is the California affiliate of the Constitution Party.
Gilchrist is better known as president and founder of The Minuteman Project, the group that gained fame last year for organizing anti-illegal immigration efforts along border states by sending its own volunteers out to help nab people crossing the border illegally.
By the Numbers
After his primary loss, Lieberman filed as an independent candidate and in the process created his own party, the "Connecticut for Lieberman Party."
With less than three weeks to go, the party is looking for a big finish, and some numbers are showing it just might happen.
New numbers released Friday showed Lieberman ahead of Lamont by 17 points. The Quinnipiac University poll showed Lieberman with 52 percent support among likely voters, Lamont with 35, and Republican challenger Alan Schlesinger with 6 percent.
A University of Connecticut poll of 637 likely voters earlier this month showed Lieberman over Lamont 48 to 40 percent with a 3.9 percent margin of error. A SurveyUSA poll taken last week of 572 likely voters shows Lieberman over Lamont 53 to 40 percent with a 4.2 percent margin of error.
Recent polls also show Lieberman has wide support that draws heavily on Republican voters, although Schlesinger has consistently polled in the single digits.
In two months since the primary, other signs are pointing to a strengthening Lieberman campaign. In a debate held Monday, Lamont issued an apology to Lieberman over an accusation regarding Lieberman's civil rights support.
The mea culpa followed a charge by a political ally of Lamont's who questioned Lieberman's account of a trip to Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s for a rally in support of the black civil rights movement. Asked to prove his attendance, Lieberman promptly called a press conference, produced news clippings and accused Lamont of factual distortions.
Lieberman's fundraising also has been strong and is being helped by the Republican Party's hands-off approach to the Connecticut Senate race. The Hartford Courant reported this week that through Sept. 30, Lieberman had raised $14.8 million, Lamont had $9 million in the bank and Schlesinger trailed with $210,000.
One question that won't be answered until Election Day is how much of the vote Schlesinger will win since some reports after Monday's debate indicated the Republican might have strengthened his position. That could hurt Lieberman on Nov. 7.
Officially, the major parties are split over the significance of a Lieberman win. Republican National Committee spokesman Josh Holmes said he believes Lieberman will win the race, but it's not going to be a source of strength for third parties, but more a sign of weakness in support for the Democratic Party.
"If [Lieberman] wins, what it says is, especially in Connecticut, there's a rejection of what Democrats have become increasingly reliant on," Holmes said, pointing to liberal groups like MoveOn.org, which is funded by billionaire activist George Soros and represented in Hollywood.
The Democratic National Committee did not respond to requests to provide an official to speak on the record, but one staff member in the committee's communications office pointed to comments by DNC Chairman Howard Dean, who said he would welcome Lieberman back into the party if he wins.