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Lieberman could tilt Connecticut 'grudge match'

WATERBURY, Conn. (Reuters) - Voters are tough and fickle in Connecticut's Naugatuck Valley, where chain-link fences and decaying ironworks dot the rolling countryside.

In blue-collar cities like Waterbury -- hometown of Connecticut's popular Republican governor, John Rowland -- people are not afraid to fire their congressman. They have done it four times in the past 14 elections.

That's why Rep. Jim Maloney, a two-term Democrat in Connecticut's 5th Congressional District, takes nothing for granted as he fends off a fierce challenge from Republican Mark Nielsen, a former state legislator who came within an eyelash of ousting Maloney in 1998.

The burly and bushy-mustached Maloney, 52, who resembles an early-1900s bartender, won by just 1.5 percent, or 2,400 votes, in 1998. This year's contest, crucial to Democratic efforts to overcome the Republicans' slender seven-seat majority in the House, also looks tight and brutal.

"It's a grudge match," said Howard Reiter, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. "Usually when these folks have fought before, you get a certain bitterness."

Both national parties see Maloney as vulnerable and are pouring money into the respective campaigns. Analysts said both candidates appear on track to break the previous spending record for a House seat in Connecticut of nearly $1.8 million, set in 1998 by Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson.

Both parties are pulling out their big guns. President Clinton visited the district in September to raise money for Maloney, while Arizona Sen. John McCain visited in April to bang the drum for Nielsen. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush visited in June.

NEGATIVE ADS

There is negative advertising aplenty, including a Nielsen TV spot in which Maloney is depicted as a fat, red-faced marionette whose strings are pulled by labor-union bosses.

Maloney, for his part, has taunted Nielsen for locating his headquarters in Watertown, a Waterbury suburb just outside the district. The headquarters building is owned by a Nielsen campaign contributor.

In a close race, the so-called "Joe Lieberman" factor could prove crucial, analysts said. Lieberman, the popular Senate Democrat who has represented Connecticut since 1988, is running simultaneously for re-election to his Senate seat and as vice president on Al Gore's Democratic ticket.

Even before Lieberman was picked as Gore's No. 2, his job-approval ratings in Connecticut were an extraordinarily high 80 percent, polls found. His presence on the national ticket, and Gore's expected strong showing in Connecticut, could be huge boosts for Maloney on Nov. 7.

"The real question for Nielsen is how many of these voters in the 5th District, after voting for Lieberman twice, are going to stop and think, 'Now, what do I think of this race?"' Reiter said.

"Connecticut doesn't make it as easy as some states to split your ballot, but in a close race ... that might make the difference," Reiter said.

LIEBERMAN FACTOR

Nielsen, 36, plays down the Lieberman factor, saying Rowland, the Republican governor, had no "coattails" in 1998. That year, Connecticut voters re-elected Democrats to power in both chambers of the state legislature, even though Rowland won the gubernatorial race in a landslide.

"This race will be decided on its own merits," Nielsen told Reuters. "Historically, it's a district that has been Democratic by registration, but has shown a great willingness to vote for Republicans."

As for Maloney, he said the Lieberman factor "helps a little ... but it's not magic."

Nielsen used Lieberman's photo in a September television ad, comparing his integrity to Lieberman's and saying "Jim Maloney is no Joe Lieberman."

Lieberman called the ad misleading, and was not flattered to be coupled with a Republican in the ad. Probably even less flattered was Lieberman's vice presidential opponent, Dick Cheney, who came to the district Sept. 7 -- the same day that Nielsen's Lieberman ad began airing.

Of the district's 321,809 registered voters, some 94,824 are Democrats, 85,372 are Republicans, and 140,890 are unaffiliated. The district includes 27 cities and towns in Fairfield and New Haven counties.

"If you understand the voters that comprise Waterbury, Connecticut, you understand the concept of a Reagan Democrat," Nielsen said. "A lot of ethnic, Roman Catholic, blue-collar, conservative voters, who happen to be registered Democrats."

"I have a very positive feeling about winning this race," said Nielsen, whose campaign released a September poll showing him seven points behind Maloney.

Maloney scoffs at that poll, and predicts an easier win than in 1998. He thinks Nielsen had his best shot two years ago, when the state ticket was headed up by Waterbury's favorite son, Republican John Rowland.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

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Monday, October 9, 2000


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