In the 2000 presidential election, 531 votes were all that stopped Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., from becoming the nation's first Jewish vice president. Six years later, Lieberman is fighting for his political life against Ned Lamont, an upstart opponent in Connecticut's surprisingly tight Democratic primary.
In an exclusive appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Lieberman blasted Lamont, a Connecticut businessman with limited political experience, as a "one trick pony," calling him an "unproductive polarizer" for a campaign that has largely centered on the senator's support for the Iraq war.
"My opponent is essentially saying to [voters]: Use this primary to vote against George Bush. But I'm not George Bush," Lieberman told Stephanopoulos, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent.
"I think that those that got us into this mess should be held accountable," said Lamont, who also appeared exclusively on "This Week" in a companion interview.
Lamont acknowledged that the Iraq war has taken center stage in this unusual intraparty fight that threatens to oust Lieberman, an 18-year incumbent, from a relatively secure seat. But he added the election was about much than just Lieberman's support for the president's policies in Iraq.
"He's got 18 years of experience, but he's using it on the wrong side of the big issues of the day," Lamont told ABC News. "Eighteen years of experience, and he got our troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war in Iraq. Eighteen years of experience, and he's done nothing for universal health care. Eighteen years of experience, and he's trying to have it both ways on affirmative action, Social Security."
Lieberman: 'I've Been Scapegoated'
Lieberman is no stranger to close races. In 1988, Lieberman won his first Senate seat in a narrow contest against three-term Republican incumbent Lowell Weicker by wooing Republicans disillusioned with Weicker's voting record and unifying Democrats.
In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore chose Lieberman as his running mate largely because of his reputation as a bipartisan broker. Lieberman, known as a foreign affairs hawk with a record of support for environmental causes dear to Gore, was the first Democrat to openly chastise President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Now, the same conservative style that won him his seat in the Senate 18 years ago and nearly delivered the vice presidency in 2000 could spell the end of Lieberman's political career at the hands of his own party's voters in his home state.
"It's crunch time," said Lieberman, who has fallen from Connecticut's most popular to the precipice of defeat. While Lieberman accepts that his support of the Iraq war is not popular within the Democratic Party, he was quick to point out that his support has not been unquestioning. "I've been scapegoated, to tell you the truth, because I have not hesitated to criticize the conduct of this war."
Still, he acknowledged the inter-party criticism didn't catch him off-guard. "I'm not surprised at it, because I know that I've taken a position on one issue, Iraq, which is not shared by a lot of other Democrats."
Speaking to the Voters
Lieberman remained steadfast on Iraq and insisted that the war is in the best interests of the American people.
"This is about your future and which one of us can produce for you, protect your jobs and your environment and give you affordable health insurance," he said. "It's clearly me. You don't really know this other guy. That's the fight we're in."
Lamont used his appearance on "This Week," to reintroduce himself to the voters.
"Ned Lamont's a guy who started up a business from scratch," he said. "Ned Lamont's a guy that thinks that George Bush has taken this country in the wrong direction. And I believe it's time for the Democrats, and I offer a clear and positive alternative to the Bush agenda."
Bouyed by support from the Internet's liberal blogs, Lamont has made a steady climb from distraction to legitimate challenger.
"There are hundreds of blogs out there on every single subject there is," he said. "Many of the blogs are supportive of us. We don't have anything to do with those blogs. Yes, they're supportive. Yes, we know many of those people. There have been a lot of posts -- a post is like a letter to the editor. I don't control what these people put on these things."
According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday, Lamont has opened up a 54 to 41 percent lead over Lieberman among likely Democratic primary voters. Analysis of the Quinnipiac statistics by the ABC News' polling unit points out that Lamont's lead relies on a 2-1 advantage among liberals who, in the 2004 Connecticut primary, accounted for 59 percent of all voters, indicating that while Lieberman may fare well in a general election, his woes are particularly troublesome in a primary dominated by liberal voters.
Lamont embraced the liberal label.
"I am a liberal -- but I mean a liberal, I think, a progressive," Lamont said. "I think if you're an entrepreneur in business -- you see a problem, you want to address it head on, you want to solve it -- I think then you're a progressive in government. And right now I think we have a government that's not dealing with real issues. So yes, I'm a liberal and I'm a progressive."
Lieberman called Lamont a "chameleon changing to suit the environment."
"I think he's really a center-right Democrat, but he's become the most doctrinaire liberal Democrat in America because he senses, he sniffs the realization of an ambition, which is to become a United States senator," Lieberman said.
"I put my loyalty to the Democratic Party and the principles of the Democratic Party up against Ned Lamont any day," Lieberman said.
Lamont "has gone through a total transformation," he added.
Lamont, who calls Republican President Teddy Roosevelt one of his role models, said Lieberman has been a good senator and a good Democrat in the past.
"I just think he's wrong on the big issues that are important right now," Lamont said.
For his part, however, Lieberman sees this primary race through the lens of only one issue.
"Ned Lamont may have talked about some other issues," Lieberman said. "He may nitpick and distort my record, but it's very clear from everything that we see and hear that he's essentially asking the people about the Democratic primary to send a message against George Bush and the Iraq war. And I'm saying to them: I ain't George Bush, and I have delivered for you over 30 years."
Lamont, who approaches the Tuesday primary with a surprising lead against a strong incumbent, said that "it's time for a change of course in Iraq."
"I hope this primary on August 8, that people turn out. They're going to be able to send a message loud and clear that the people of Connecticut want to change course there," Lamont said. "I hope that sends a message to the November election, and I'll be able to act upon that as a U.S. senator."
George Stephanopoulos' entire interviews with Lieberman and Lamont can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.