By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, sits in a position of extraordinary power in the presidential campaign, simultaneously courted and detested by members of both political parties.
Democrats court him because he holds the balance of power in the US Senate. A registered Democrat, Lieberman won re-election as an independent and would shift control of the Senate to Republicans if he declared himself a member of the GOP. But many Democrats are appalled that their 2000 vice presidential candidate is now a visible and vocal supporter of Republican John McCain -- and that his name is even being bandied about as a possible running mate.
Today, Democratic anger escalated after the GOP announced that Lieberman will deliver a major address to its convention. At the "Lieberman Must Go" website, 52,000 people have signed a petition seeking his ouster from the Democratic caucus, and many leave comments that call him a "turncoat" and worse.
Republicans curry favor with Lieberman because they like the idea of a self-described "Independent Democrat" urging other independent-minded voters -- a bloc that McCain likely needs to win in November -- to support the Arizona senator. But many Republicans dislike Lieberman's positions on many issues, including his support of abortion rights. Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, while calling Lieberman a "fine guy," warned this week that the Republican Party would be torn apart if Lieberman became McCain's running mate.
Lieberman, who is on a fact-finding trip to the war-torn former Soviet republic of Georgia, told the Associated Press today, "I'm going to the Republican convention not to attack the Democratic candidate, but to explain to the American people why I support John McCain. Senator McCain asked me to do it, and I strongly support him."
The speaking role in St. Paul on Sept. 1 marks the latest step in a highly unconventional political journey for Lieberman, who, if the Florida vote had gone the other way, could be in his eighth year as vice president, perhaps preparing to accept the Democratic nomination as president.
After his turn as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, Lieberman broke with his party, mostly over his continued support for the Iraq war. That maverick streak is a large part of his appeal and affinity with McCain, for whom he has campaigned often.
Chris Lehane, a former top aide to Gore, said yesterday that many Democrats are "appalled" at Lieberman's support for McCain and his willingness to criticize Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, recalling that Lieberman often rejected the role of attack dog during the 2000 campaign.
"What he refused to do on behalf of the Democratic ticket," Lieberman is "now willing to do on behalf of the Republican Party," said Lehane, who now works as a Democratic consultant.
While Lieberman promotes McCain's experience in foreign affairs, he also questions Obama's readiness to be president. In comments quoted on McCain's website, Lieberman accuses Obama of having made up his mind about the Iraq war before his July visit.
"It's just not what we want in a president," Lieberman said. "He's going to Iraq, but he's already decided his position. He's not going to listen to [General David] Petraeus. He's not going to listen to our troops....I think that's not the kind of leadership we need in the Oval Office."
Lieberman called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday night to inform him that he would be speaking at the GOP convention, according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley. Reid told Lieberman that he has "strong concerns about McCain's qualifications to be president," Manley said.
Nonetheless, Lieberman plans to continue to caucus with the Democrats, which would ensure that Reid continues as majority leader. The Senate is evenly divided, 49-49 between Democrats and Republicans, with independents Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist from Vermont who votes with Democrats, holding the balance of power.
"Senator Lieberman has always been there for Senator Reid, even on close votes, except for Iraq," Manley said.
Lieberman endorsed McCain during the New Hampshire primary campaign, while insisting he was not interested in once again being a vice presidential nominee, saying, "Been there, done that."
His estrangement from Democrats grew after his 2006 re-election campaign, when he was defeated by an antiwar primary challenger, Ned Lamont, who received the backing of most of the party establishment. Lieberman then ran as an Independent in the fall and won a fourth term.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.