Connecticut "Independent Streak" Gives Bush Reason for Optimism

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

[Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles on states that may emerge as key battlegrounds in the 2000 presidential election. Other installments include Michigan and West Virginia

- Both parties are counting on their electoral base - the Rocky Mountain states and the South for Republicans, the West Coast and New England for the Democrats - to put them within striking distance of the White House.

But in Connecticut, recent polls have shown a neck-and-neck race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore: a 34-34 percent tie, according to a May 30th Rasmussen poll. The question is, is this dead heat a reflection of a shaky Gore base or simply voter inattention in the lazy days of summer?

At first glance, the closeness of the race in Connecticut is surprising, given the Democratic party's dominance there. The governor and lieutenant governor are both Republicans, but many of the state's other constitutional offices, four of its six U.S. House seats, both U.S. Senate seats, and both houses of the Connecticut legislature are controlled by Democrats.

Adding to GOP woes in the state, Bush's father narrowly lost Connecticut - home to his alma mater, Yale University, and the family's traditional political base - in 1992, and Bob Dole was walloped there by Bill Clinton in 1996 by 18 points.

But G. Donald Ferree, executive director of the Connecticut Poll, said Clinton's victories belie Connecticut's history as a state with a strong independent streak.

"Connecticut has always been a state that is willing to move back and forth between the parties," said Ferree. "For most of its history, it has been relatively evenly balanced."

Connecticut's strong independent streak is perhaps best summed up by Lowell Weicker, the former Senator who started his political career as a Republican, and then ran successfully as an Independent for Governor in 1990. Weicker had lost a Senate re-election bid to Democrat Joseph Lieberman in 1988, in a race where the Democrat moved to Weicker's right on several important issues, including foreign policy and prayer in schools.

Lieberman himself has refused to tack a straight Democratic line in the Senate, managing the floor debate in favor of the Gulf War resolution, backing capital gains cuts for small businesses, and urging the president to sign the 1996 welfare reform bill.

He has also made cleaning up television a central political issue, serving on the board of the Parents Television Council , a nationwide family group that pushes for less sex and violence in primetime television. (The PTC is a division of the Media Research Center , the parent organization of

So Connecticut is a state where, despite recent GOP losses, a close presidential campaign is not uncommon. But what is it about George W. Bush that has Constitution Staters taking a second look, where Bob Dole never had a chance?

Personality is everything, said Ferree. "Bush seems like an attractive person to Connecticut voters. . . . They're looking for a moderate, someone who doesn't seem doctrinaire or captive to the far extremes of his party."

In fact, according to Kenneth Dautrich, the head of the Center for Survey Research at the University of Connecticut, voters in Connecticut are almost the clich\'e9 of the American moderate: suspicious of increased taxes (the state is among the wealthiest in the nation) and of bureaucratic interference in social issues, they welcome an activist government - but not too activist.

"Fiscally, [Connecticut voters] are very conservative and trend Republican, but on abortion, gun control and related issues, they are clearly more liberal," said Dautrich.

According to Bush spokesperson Ray Sullivan, that's why Bush's campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism" has resonated in Connecticut. On education, for example, Sullivan said voters in Connecticut like Bush's approach of federal accountability standards coupled with increased local control.

"Education ranks at the top of what voters are interested in," said Sullivan, and in an affluent and education-conscious state like Connecticut - which boasts some of the best universities in the world - voters find Bush's record of "school accountability and increasing test scores" attractive.

According to Ferree, the race in Connecticut will come down to which candidate can push his opponent to the farthest edge of the ideological spectrum in the minds of voters. "If Gore can convince voters that Bush is a captive of the religious right, a hard-liner on abortion and that his economic plans are risky - then Gore wins."

That's exactly the plan, said state Democratic Party chair Edward Marcus, who is also heading Gore's campaign in Connecticut.

"Once it becomes clear that Bush is against women's rights, against gun control, against patient's rights, and against campaign finance reform, Gore will open up an eight to 12 point lead over Bush," said Marcus.

Marcus added that spreading the Democratic message in Connecticut should be easy, since the state party has put together a "well-run, tightly knit" group of grassroots activists in the 1990s.

As for the polls, Marcus isn't worried. "Right now, voters aren't paying any attention to the race," he said from his law offices. "Once they do, the vice president will open up an insurmountable lead over Bush."