August 11, 2006 7:38 pm

Ned Lamont: The improbable challenger

As Ned Lamont stepped out of his car on Tuesday for the last stop of his upstart campaign for the US Senate, he still had the wide-eyed look of a man who could not quite believe that all the fuss was about him.

Hands on his hips, he nodded and smiled as a supporter, her fluffy dog tucked under her arm, reported that he had won the absentee ballots in the West Hartford, Connecticut, precinct. He moved to shake hands with some poll workers, but was reminded that he could not get too close to the voting station.

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Standing near Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist who had joined him for part of the afternoon, Mr Lamont hesitated when asked what he had learnt during his campaign to unseat Joseph Lieberman, the three-term ­senator and former vice-presidential candidate, in the Democratic primary. “Ask me tomorrow,” he said, before inviting everyone within earshot to join him at an election night party for free beer.

A few hours later, as it became clear that Mr Lamont would be declared the winner, Lanny Davis, a former White House counsel and longtime friend of Mr Lieberman, said Mr Lamont had run a good anti-war campaign. But with Mr Lieberman planning to run as an independent in the November election to hold on to his seat, Mr Davis said voters needed to know more than where he stood on Iraq. “Who is Ned Lamont?”

Liberal activists, energised by his victory, know what they think. “Ned Lamont is a blueprint for the kind of leadership that can lead Democrats to victory in November,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action. Mr Lamont rallied the grassroots and tapped the “netroots”, he said, and led a “revolt by voters who are tired of the status quo”.

For Republicans, though, Mr Lamont is the archetype of the pacifist Democrat, a theme the party hopes to exploit in November’s midterm elections. Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman, said Mr Lamont’s campaign was based on “retreating from the terrorists in Iraq” and that his win reflected “an unfortunate embrace of isolationism, defeatism and a ‘blame America first’ attitude”.

The Lieberman camp has tried to portray Mr Lamont as an extremist and an opportunist, willing to use millions of his own money to ride a growing anti-war sentiment to Washington. Mr Lieberman’s allies in groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group, say a rejection of politicians such as him would be dangerous for the party, arguing that it needs to broaden its appeal to moderates, not narrow its focus to ­traditional liberals, if Democrats are to recapture the White House.

Mr Lamont, 52, was a tireless and confident campaigner. “I think we’re doing very well, because we’re standing up and being bold and clear about where we stand,” he said. “We’re fighting for universal healthcare, we’re fighting for clean energy, dealing with global warming in a serious way, dealing with the deficit in a serious way and getting our troops home from Iraq.”

With the intense national spotlight that has fallen on him since Tuesday, it is hard to recall that just three months ago this wealthy cable television executive and political novice appeared a long-shot to unseat Mr Lieberman. His great-grandfather, Thomas W. Lamont, was financier John Pierpont Morgan’s partner and confidante (a Harvard lib­rary is named for him). His great-uncle was Corliss Lamont, legendary socialist and director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

After graduating from Harvard, Mr Lamont worked on a Vermont newspaper, then went to the Yale School of Management. He worked for a cable television company and then founded his own, Lamont Digital Systems, which installs cable in university buildings. His fortune, worth somewhere between $90m and $300m, according to documents he filed with the Federal Election Commission, comes from his family, his own business and his wife, Ann, managing partner at Oak Investment Partners, a venture capital firm.

Mr Lieberman attempted to paint Mr Lamont as a wealthy dilettante from a ritzy suburb, with a campaign advertisement that said: “Meet Ned Lamont. He’s a Greenwich millionaire.” Mr Lamont – whose previous political experience was as a town councillor in Greenwich for two years and as a fundraiser for national Democrats such as John Kerry and Howard Dean – put $4m of his own money into the race. But he gave up his membership of an exclusive country club, traded his luxury convertible for a hybrid and voters did not seem to mind his money.

On the campaign trail, there were few signs of his blue-blood roots. Voters appreciated what Mr Jackson called his “freshness”, his ability to talk about the issues of the day in an open and accessible way. He complained about the role of lobbyists and talked about his volunteer work, teaching entrepreneurship to high school students in urban Bridgeport. Leftwing bloggers drew attention to his cause and wealthy liberals – including George Soros and Barbra Streisand – sent him cheques.

But it was his opposition to the war in Iraq – and Mr Lieberman’s dogged support for it – that made Mr Lamont enter the race. That is what seems to have mattered most to voters. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that 43 per cent of those who voted for Mr Lamont in Tuesday’s primary said his opposition to the war was their main reason for backing him. Nearly half said their vote for Mr Lamont was really a vote against Mr Lieberman. While Mr Lamont calls the war “the defining issue”, he has tried to assure Connecticut voters – and Democrats across the country – that he is not a single-issue candidate. “There are a lot of other issues out there as well.”

Mr Lamont has tried to brush aside suggestions that he has become a leader of liberal forces trying to flex their muscles within the Democratic party, preferring to focus on his own state. Many prominent Democrats who had backed Mr Lieberman have rushed to endorse Mr Lamont. Hillary Clinton’s political action committee said it would send a $5,000 cheque and she hinted that she might campaign for him.

Some have also pressed Mr Lieberman to abandon his independent bid. But he has resisted so far and will surely use the next stage of the campaign to paint Mr Lamont as dangerous to the party and the country – and to underscore the trade-off Connecticut voters would be making, between an experienced politician with long years of service to the state and an untested newcomer.

But for Mr Lamont’s supporters, his newness is a plus. “He’s not a politician. He comes with no political baggage,” said one Democratic operative.

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