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January 18, 2011

Joe Lieberman's legacy

Reports Tuesday say Sen. Joseph Lieberman will announce Wednesday he won't seek another term, and if that's so, it ends an historic, turbulent chapter in American politics.

The Connecticut independent will have a place in history--the first Jewish-American to be nominated for a major presidential ticket. He ran for vice president with Al Gore on the Democrats' 2000 ticket, a team that won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote.

Lieberman had won his Senate seat in 1988, beating Connecticut icon Lowell Weicker. Lieberman had been the state's attorney general, and won with an unusual strategy--while widely popular then among Democrats, he also courted conservatives fed up with the moderate Weicker.

In Washington, Lieberman quickly established himself as a hawk on defense, a coalition-builder on fiscal issues and generally following the Democratic line on social issues. He got national attention as the first non-southern senator to back then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president, and in 1995 became chairman of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. He was unbeatable in Connecticut, winning a third term in the same election as his vice presidential run.

But his support of the Iraq war--he'd been urging a tough line long before George W. Bush took office--cost him politically. Once the frontrunner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, his bid wound up going nowhere, and by 2006, he faced a strong challenge for the party's nomination to his Senate seat from businessman Ned Lamont.

Lamont won the primary, Lieberman ran as an independent and won a decisive victory. He won because in a small state like Connecticut, where the personal touch is valued, Lieberman's personable style resonated.

But he continued to make political enemies. His vocal support of Republican John McCain's presidential run in 2008 further infuriated Connecticut Democrats. A year ago, a Quinnipiac poll found state voters disapprove of the job Lieberman was doing by a 54-39 percent margin. Among Democrats, the ratio was 67-27 percent disapproval.

And among independents, 57 percent disapproved and 36 percent approved.

Lieberman will discuss his future Wednesday in Stamford, Conn.

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