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Gary Younge
Democrats who oppose illegal wars and torture want to reclaim the party

Recently, Lieberman has been struggling with some infidelity issues of his own. Last year, he was caught in a tender embrace with one other than his wife. Worse still for Lieberman, an opponent of gay marriage, it was another man - George Bush. Bush planted "the kiss" as he worked the Congress floor after his state of the union address. But for Democratic voters of Connecticut it might as well have been the Garden of Gethsemane.

In tomorrow's Democratic primary, Lieberman may well pay for that kiss with his job. Polls suggest he will lose the fight against a previously unknown anti-war candidate, Ned Lamont. Last week's Quinnipiac survey showed Lamont drubbing him 54% to 41% with only 5% of voters undecided. It has been a dramatic turnaround. Just three months ago, 91% of Democrats did not know enough about Lamont to make up their mind.

As one of the wealthiest and best educated states in the union, Connecticut is no bellwether. The Senate seat is so reliably Democratic that when the Republicans nominated their candidate earlier this year some in the convention bleated to signal a lamb to the slaughter. Lieberman, meanwhile, is no regular Democrat. That incriminating smooch didn't come from nowhere. He was the only New England Democratic senator to support Bush's energy policy, one of only a few Democrats who thought the government should intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, and a rare Democrat who said he was willing to work with Bush's failed plan to overhaul social security.

Indeed, it is the very presence of this unreliable Democrat in this reliably Democratic seat that has transformed this primary into a national race, for it tests just how much betrayal Democratic voters are prepared to accept before they assert their electoral clout. The big guns have been pouring in. Recently a forgiving Clinton came to back Lieberman; last week Jesse Jackson was down to support Lamont. Liberal-left bloggers backing Lamont have been in overdrive.

Some have described it as a struggle for the heart and soul of the Democratic party, but a more accurate portrayal would be a battle to establish whether the party should have a soul at all. It raises not only the question of what does the party stand for apart from office but also whether it is prepared to adopt an agenda that could actually win office. This race could set the tone for the 2008 presidential elections.

Less then half of those backing Lamont cite the war as the main reason. "It's mostly about the war but not exclusively," says Christine Koskoff at a Lamont meeting at Bristol's Clock and Watch Museum. "It's about Senator Lieberman articulating the agenda of the rightwingers who run this country. The war sums up everything that's wrong."

In this Lieberman, like his kiss, is more symbol than substance. He was one of 29 Democratic senators who voted for the war. Some have since expressed their regret; most, like him, haven't. Some, like Hillary, face token challenges. Only Lieberman is in serious trouble. For he went one step further, arguing that when it comes to the war the opposition had no right to oppose. "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander-in-chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last November.

Lieberman's colleagues duly rounded on him. But his real crime was to give explicit voice to their spinelessness. In truth, only a handful had expressed anything but token opposition to the war and even fewer had set out a clear alternative for fear of being branded unpatriotic. They were mad because Lieberman blew their cover. What this race has really exposed is not a rift between him and the Democratic establishment, which has now closed ranks to back him, but between the establishment and both its base and the nation at large.

Once again, this is not just about the war. Thanks to money and name recognition, the best guarantee that you will be elected in the US is to be elected already - more than 90% of incumbents are usually returned. Being a congressman is the closest thing to tenure you can get outside of academe. If Lieberman, who has served for three terms, can be ousted by a restless party then who's next? Such is his sense of entitlement that Lieberman has vowed that if he loses the primary he will run in November as an independent - at that point the establishment will probably turn against him.

But the war is central. The partisan divide over Iraq is greater than over any other war in living memory bar Grenada. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war and in favour of setting a date for troop withdrawal; Republicans are the opposite. According to the non-aligned Pew Research Centre, the difference in how the two parties viewed the Vietnam war never exceeded 18 percentage points. The most recent poll on Iraq suggests a partisan gap of 50.

Yet while the Bush administration gives full throated expression to its supporters' pro-war sympathies, Democrats rarely find their views echoed by the party. A Quinnipiac poll last month showed 93% of Connecticut's Democratic voters disapprove of Bush's handling of the war; 86% think the war was a mistake. On this key issue their representative does not represent them.

This could be, as most of the media and Democratic establishment has painted it, a militant grassroots being restrained by a pragmatic, moderate leadership. But the truth is the views of the Democratic membership chime more closely with the rest of the country than those of its leadership. Polls show more than half of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, support either setting a timetable for or immediate troop withdrawal, and believe Congress is not questioning the president enough about the war. This gives the lie to the claim that Lamont's challenge represents a bid by radicals, urged on by the blogosphere, to hijack the party. If only.

Bloggers can appeal to an ideological constituency, but they cannot create one out of thin air. Addressing the meeting in Bristol last weekend, Lamont, a millionaire and heir to great wealth, could have been a candidate for social secretary at a country club. If this is the face of US radicalism, then it will reassure some to know that it is evenly tanned and neatly coiffed. Those who follow it are similarly respectable. Of the 200 or so who cheered him most were middle-aged white professionals and retirees.

The joke is not on Lamont or his followers, but on those who brand them insurrectionists. Opposing illegal wars and torture are not radical positions. These are ordinary people, indignant at the "premeditated" deception of their commander-in-chief. And, like Lieberman eight years ago, they think it is time to speak up.

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