Joe Lieberman's Best Supporters Wear Red

The White House and Republican officials weren’t just giving the GOP’s candidate in Connecticut’s three-way Senate race the cold shoulder — they were looking for a replacement.

Little-known former Derby, Conn., mayor Alan Schlesinger is the official nominee, chosen earlier this year as a sacrificial lamb when it seemed that Joe Lieberman was a shoo-in for a fourth term. All that changed when the senator was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary by antiwar challenger Ned Lamont — solely because of Lieberman’s support for the war against terrorism in Iraq.

What didn’t change were Schlesinger’s unelectability and the tacit-but-unspoken position in the West Wing and the GOP’s high command that — barring a new and stronger challenger — they would rather see Lieberman re-elected as a sign of support for President Bush’s war in Iraq.

What wasn’t clearly understood in the immediate post-primary fog, as both parties regrouped, was the GOP’s angst toward its own nominee — until I found out that the Senate Republican campaign committee, chaired by Elizabeth Dole, wasn’t going to waste its money on Schlesinger’s hopeless campaign.

"Let me get back to you on that," said Dole’s spokesman Dan Ronayne when I asked him if the GOP’s campaign committee was going to be giving Schlesinger any support whatsoever.

A few minutes later, Ronayne responded by e-mail with this remarkable statement: "Connecticut doesn’t appear to be a competitive campaign for our nominee right now so we are focusing out attention elsewhere on races where we may have a greater impact."

Initially, GOP leaders and the White House were reluctant to come out and say they were not going to lift a finger to help Schlesinger. Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, when pressed on a Sunday talk show to say whether the party was supporting its candidate, danced around the question, saying that was a question for Connecticut Republicans to decide and he was following their wishes in the matter.

Bush spokesman Tony Snow seemed, at least at first, uncomfortable with the question and fended off a reporter’s inquiries, saying that question was better put to the White House’s political shop. Eventually, Snow made it known that Bush was not supporting the GOP’s nominee.

What wasn’t known at the time was that GOP campaign officials were test-polling potential substitute names with Connecticut voters in the hopes of finding someone with broader political appeal who had a chance in the divided three-way contest.

But party officials told me that none of the test-marketed names showed they could win and the idea was dropped.

Connecticut Republican officials, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell, had been pressing Schlesinger to abandon his candidacy and let the party choose a replacement, but he has turned aside their pleas.

The result is a White House posture that seems to be in neutral, but is in fact pulling for Lieberman and perhaps quietly urging its Senate candidates to embrace the embattled senator’s fight for survival.

White House political strategist Karl Rove called Lieberman in the wake of his defeat. While no one knows what he told the senator, he must have expressed his regret, and the president’s, that one of their Democratic allies on Iraq had lost his party’s renomination — forcing him to run as an independent.

What followed, moreover, were several high-level endorsements from Republicans around the country, praising Lieberman’s willingness to reach out across the aisle and his unswerving support for the war in the face of fierce opposition from left-wing antiwar activists and bloggers who fueled Lamont’s victory.

Congressman Mark Kennedy, running for the open Democratic seat in Minnesota, expressed "tremendous respect for Sen. Lieberman’s courage and his character. In the face of blistering negative attacks, he didn’t waffle, he didn’t back down from what he knew was right."

Republican business executive Mike McGavick, who is in a close race with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington State, sent Lieberman a campaign contribution, saying his "message of independence and bipartisanship is right for our country."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg embraced him, too, saying that with the country so polarized, it needed "nonpartisan elected officials who think doing the right thing for the public is more important than supporting some party."

In New Jersey, Republican Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. admired "Lieberman’s ability to work across the aisle with members of the opposite party," his spokesman told me.

Ironically, as a Gallup Poll showed, Lieberman has more support from Republicans than he does among Democrats, though the 48 percent of Democrats who voted for him this month isn’t chopped liver, either.

But with the Republican establishment rejecting Alan Schlesinger, who gets 6 percent in the polls, the dirty little secret in Washington is that some of Lieberman’s biggest supporters are in the White House.