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Thursday, August 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Cantwell's no Lieberman

The easy thing to do these days is to read a lot of pith and deep meaning into the Connecticut Senate primary race, where Sen. Joe Lieberman, pro-war Democrat, got a deserved comeuppance in his primary loss to a well-heeled Democratic challenger.

There is no pith or deep meaning. Lieberman lost because he was out of touch with the anti-war sentiments of his state. He lost because he embraced so many of unpopular President Bush's policies that a picture of the president apparently kissing Lieberman was too powerful and overwhelming.

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, like Lieberman, endorsed the president's initial decision on the Iraq war and has stood with him too long, though her position is evolving. Beyond that, there is little similarity between the Connecticut and Washington Senate races.

Republicans try to portray the anti-war movement as a fringe element that has taken over the Democratic Party. Sentiment against the war by now is not only the essence of the Democratic Party but also a big chunk of the independent and Republican vote as well. A CNN poll shows 61 percent of Americans want to begin troop withdrawals from Iraq or pull them all out. How fringe is that?

The Lieberman experience will reverberate only a little in Washington. Cantwell will win the Democratic primary with her eyes closed. Her legitimate concern is the general election contest against Republican Mike McGavick.

Ned Lamont, Lieberman's opponent, was a hard-campaigning, anti-war candidate who spent $4 million defeating Lieberman, who will now run as an independent.

Cantwell's key opponent in the primary, Hong Tran, a seemingly grounded, competent attorney, has raised a measly $18,000, with $8,800 remaining after expenses as of the end of June. The incumbent at the same time had raised $10 million, with $6.4 million cash on hand.

Tran will be vapor by the Sept. 19 primary.

In the general election, Cantwell will have the additional nuisance of Green Party candidate Aaron Dixon. Washington ultra-lefties may be emboldened enough by Lieberman's defeat to punish Cantwell for a poorly communicated, hard-to-follow position on the war.

The best guess is Dixon, who might normally get 1 percent, will get 2.5 percent in the general. Some of those votes could be crucial if the margin between Cantwell and McGavick is narrow.

Cantwell is an altogether different package than Lieberman. Cantwell has opposed Bush numerous times, pointedly on his alliance with Big Oil and by voting against both of his rightist Supreme Court nominees, Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Lieberman, more supportive of Bush, supported Roberts, opposed Alito.

Lieberman is closer to the president on the war than Cantwell, though her convoluted position takes some explaining.

Cantwell and Lieberman joined other Democrats and Republicans in October 2002 authorizing the war resolution. In May 2006, as her momentum stalled largely because of her position on Iraq, Cantwell said, "In Iraq, 2006 must be a year of transition" Transition from what to what? Who knows?

Instead of amending her stance with one really clean, clear press conference, Cantwell has been tweaking the position by dribbling out a new phrase each month. Incrementalism gone mad.

By June, she backed a moderate amendment that said the president should send a plan to Congress by the end of 2006 for phased troop redeployment. Lieberman voted against this rational resolution.

In July, Cantwell campaign director Michael Meehan pushed her position forward significantly but it was so late no one noticed: "We're for changing course ... Troops should begin leaving by the end of the year ... 30,000 is not enough."

Her August phrase, released this week, was an odd construct that doesn't say much: She wouldn't have voted for the war knowing what she knows now.

Opponent McGavick is more pro-war, though he too said he wouldn't vote for the resolution knowing what he knows now. He also inexplicably said issues around the invasion should not be debated until the war is over and all U.S. troops return. This is nonsense.

For some voters, the war is the only topic. They deserve to know a politician's position.

Cantwell has stumbled on this issue. But Democratic candidate, Democratic year, Democratic state, she still has a very good chance to win. Lieberman went too far with his pro-war position. Cantwell almost did.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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