Meet Joe Lieberman's Worst Nightmare

Ned Lamont
CBS/Christine Lagorio
By CBSNews.com producer Christine Lagorio.

Ned Lamont reached his political breaking point last November after reading an op-ed piece by Joe Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal.

The three-term Connecticut senator's sunny description of war-torn Iraq ("There are many more cars on the streets, satellite television dishes on the roofs, and literally millions more cell phones in Iraqi hands than before.") and his uncompromising support for U.S. involvement were too much for Lamont.

The former Lieberman campaign contributor reached out to Democratic leaders and liberal groups in Connecticut in an effort to find an anti-war candidate to oppose Al Gore's former running mate in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary. There were no takers. So Lamont decided to do it himself.

"I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a business guy," Lamont told CBSNews.com. "I think if you see a problem, you want to go out and fix it."

Lamont, 52, has come closer to "fixing" the problem than Lieberman and the Democratic Party establishment ever imagined. With the primary less than a week away, a new Quinnipiac University poll shows Lamont with a solid 54-41 percent lead over Lieberman among likely Democratic voters.

Lamont's edge reflects a remarkable 28-point swing in less than two months. (Lieberman held a 15-point lead over Lamont in a June 5 Quinnipiac poll.)

The roots of Lieberman's free fall in the polls (complacency, hubris) have been hashed over in the press.

But Lamont's secret recipe probably deserves a little more attention. While there's no question about the fact that Lamont's anti-war crusade is driving his candidacy (65 percent of the Democrats backing Lamont in the Quinnipiac poll say they're voting against Lieberman), Lamont has also been boosted by a frenetic, hustling grassroots campaign.

"I am working flat out, I am going around the state nonstop. I am introducing myself to people. If there are 12 people on a street corner, it's likely that I'm right there tellin' 'em who Ned Lamont is and why I think this race is so important," Lamont told a gathering at a private home in Westport last week.

Lamont isn't exactly William Jennings Bryan. In the course of one day of campaigning, he referred to both Iraq and high gas prices as "the pickle we're in." Nevertheless, he's found a way of connecting with voters.

Half a year of visiting picnics, parades, nursing homes and school auditoriums around the Nutmeg state hasn't hurt. His modus operandi at small gatherings is to try to meet every attendee before delivering a short speech that often evokes cheers, laughter and questions. Again and again, he explains why Democrats should stand up to the Republicans on Iraq, health care, the environment and civil liberties.

At a New Haven senior center last week, Lamont provoked a laugh by opening a speech to a group of mostly elderly black women by mussing his boyish-cut brown hair and saying, "I see this crowd and I want to talk about teenagers, so let me start there."

He began talking about education, chiding the Bush administration for spending $250 million per day on Iraq while area schools don't stay open past 2:30 p.m. Before long, he ditched his microphone and dove into the topics of universal health care and social security. The crowd loved him.

While Lamont's campaign work ethic may have been underappreciated and underreported, the same can't be said of his online chorus. Very early on, prominent liberal blogs -- including as Daily Kos, MyDD and Political Wire – beat the drums for the Lamont campaign.

Initially, Lamont was viewed almost exclusively as an anti-war alternative to Lieberman. But the Political Wire's founder, Taegan Goddard, said the blogs' perception of Lamont has shifted.

"Lamont isn't a one-issue contender, he's the real deal. He's an intelligent man with real positions," Goddard said.

Chris Casey, an 18-year-old Connecticut contributor to NetRootsMovement.com, said Lamont's candidacy has turned local bloggers into reporters rather than link-posting ranters.

"The bloggers now follow him around and they really support him. I consider myself part of that base," Casey said last week at an evening poolside Lamont event that he organized. Several bloggers were present, lurking on the outskirts of the well-heeled crowd.

"[Lamont] is the star of YouTube, and he's not even the one doing it. It's these guys stalking him with their shaky cameras," Casey said.

"Let me tell you what that meant to me," Lamont said. "At 52, I didn't know too much about the blogs" early on in the race. Lamont said that when he was invited to speak at Naples Pizza in New Haven, he expected 15 or 20 people to show up. But thanks to blogs, there were "120 people hanging from the rafters. And it was thanks to a lot of grassroots energizers like Chris … that all of a sudden across the state we have all sorts of people turning out."

Blogs have eagerly publicized the most enduring symbol of Lamont's campaign: A photograph of President Bush hugging Lieberman.

A campaign button of the photo called "The Kiss" has been a smash hit. And a massive papier mache statue of the Bush-Lieberman embrace seems to follow the veteran senator around Connecticut.

An effective campaign and blog enthusiasm aren't Lamont's only assets. He also happens to be filthy rich. There's nary a log cabin dangling from the Lamont family tree. Ned's great-grandfather was Thomas Lamont, the chairman of J.P. Morgan, the legendary Wall Street investment bank.

Nor did Lamont matriculate at the School of Hard Knocks. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Lamont went to Harvard (home of the Lamont Library). Then, after a stint as the editor of a weekly newspaper in Vermont, Lamont returned to Connecticut to pick up an MBA from a local school: Yale.

But Lamont's wealth can't be explained away simply by pointing to his privileged education and family background. The father of three teenagers founded Lamont Digital Systems, a cable TV company that has made millions of dollars.

Not only that but (as lucky would have it!) the little woman is pretty fast with a buck herself. Venture capitalist Anne Lamont is raking in more millions for the family. (The Lamonts are worth anywhere from $90 million to $332 million, according to his financial disclosure statement.)

Lamont has used this tidy sum to finance his campaign against Lieberman. The mountain of money Lamont is sitting on has also enabled him to sneer at lobbyists and refuse to take any special-interest money.

Perhaps that's why Lieberman's attempt to wage class warfare against Lamont has failed so miserably. Senator Joe is fond of calling Lamont the "Greenwich millionaire," but the phrase has fallen on deaf ears if the polls are any indication. (Lamont's only political experience consists of two terms as a town selectman in Greenwich, the wealthy Fairfield County bedroom community.)

Still, Lamont's remarkable rise in the polls doesn't guarantee him a thing. Even if he administers a proper thrashing to Lieberman in the primary, he'll still have to face him again in the general election since Senator Joe has already announced that he will run as independent if he loses the primary.

A Quinnipiac poll taken last month showed that in the general election, Lieberman would get 51 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Lamont. (Republican sad sack Alan Schlesinger brought up the rear with 9 percent.)

Still, nobody (as yet) has gotten by rich betting against Lamont.

"I'd say every organization needs a fresh shot in the arm, some fresh blood every once in a while." Lamont said. "It might not just be the U.S. Senate, it might be Lamont Digital Systems. That's just the way it works. It's only in politics that people think you should be there forever."

Stay tuned.

By Christine Lagorio