Shays, Lieberman engage in delicate political dance

WASHINGTON–At a Senate hearing on wartime contracting Wednesday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and ex-Rep. Chris Shays mostly stuck to the dry subject at hand–squandered taxpayer dollars, poor government oversight, and sweeping abuses in military contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But beneath the staid policy discourse, they were unspooling a juicier political thread. As ex-GOP congressman Shays seeks to succeed Lieberman in the Senate, the two long-time Connecticut politicians are engaged in a delicate dance–one that’s allowing both to generate buzz in the press and send ripples through the political establishment.

Those are two things that Lieberman and Shays have long relished doing in their respective careers in public office, whether it’s through cultivating a maverick image in their policy positions or doling out provocative quotes to the press.

Lieberman Shays

Lieberman, Shays staying in touch.

Wednesday’s Senate hearing–at which Shays was a key witness as co-chair of the Commission on Wartime Contracting–also highlighted an intriguing question in Connecticut’s still-nascent U.S. Senate campaign for 2012: What role will Lieberman play in the race to replace him?

Lieberman, who is retiring at the end of his current term, is something of a wildcard in the contest–a controversial politician who left the Democratic Party after losing to Ned Lamont in 2006 and went on to win as an independent. If he were on the ballot this time around, he’d be a lightening rod, particularly for liberal Democrats who remain furious with him over his support for the war in Iraq and his endorsement of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Indeed, at least one Democrat in the contest offered a blunt answer about Lieberman’s potential role. “None,” answered state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford. “This race isn’t about Joe Lieberman, and I think all of us would do well to move on and focus on the race at hand.”

But Lieberman isn’t one who likes to stay out of the spotlight. That remains clear as he openly toys with endorsing Shays, who plans to announce his Senate bid next month, or another candidate in the contest.

“I might support any number of the candidates,” Lieberman said in an interview this week. “Right now I’m a long way from deciding. I’m watching it with interest.”

Even as he downplayed his influence, Lieberman noted that he’d created “a little bubble” of interest last week by telling a reporter for The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that he had a long personal friendship and political alliance with Shays and would definitely consider endorsing him. His answer generated a headline for himself and for Shays.

Lieberman did the same thing in the 2010 Senate campaign, gamely offering up a “maybe” whenever he was asked about a possible endorsement of Linda McMahon, the Republican nominee against Democrat Richard Blumenthal. He never did endorse her, staying out of that contest and others in the state.

This time around, Lieberman even held a one-on-one meeting with McMahon in his Senate office, where they discussed foreign policy. He said “it’s possible” he could end up supporting McMahon-or even one of the Democrats in the race.

“I know them all,” he said. “There might even be a third-party candidate–Dave Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general, has occasionally been rumored [to be interested in the Connecticut Senate race]. And I know him and have a lot of respect for him.”

Lieberman said he’d decide who to vote for himself and “separately decide whether it’ll be constructive for me to do a public endorsement.”

Shays is no stranger to the political sport of maybe-I-will, maybe-I-won’t. Indeed, in 2006, as Lieberman’s re-election prospects looked increasingly bleak, Shays began encouraging the idea of a possible cross-endorsement of Lieberman by state Republicans–at first quietly, and then to the press.

The move could have helped not just Lieberman but also Shays, who at the time was facing his own tough re-election contest because of his support for the Iraq war. “Their position on the war can’t be closer,” Michael Sohn, then Shays’ campaign manager, said at the time. “They both voted to go into Iraq, and they both support staying until the job is done.”

Once the cross-endorsement idea went public, other Republicans quickly stomped it out and Lieberman said he wouldn’t accept it. Shays, however, continued to make his own support for Lieberman known.

And last year, Shays publicly ruminated about jumping into the gubernatorial race before quietly dropping the idea.

Whether a Lieberman endorsement in this election would help or hurt depends on whom you ask–and whom the sitting senator might back. For any of the three Democrats–Tong, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, or ex-Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz–it would probably be more of a drag than a boost.

“They don’t want to be seen as playing footsie with Joe Lieberman, because they feel the cost to them in support and enthusiasm would be too much of a risk,” said Chris Healy, the former chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. “It’s like finding out you’re dancing with someone other than your wife–without permission.”

Healy said that in the Republican primary, a Lieberman endorsement wouldn’t be of much use, because that contest will be determined by “party-line people” who aren’t too interested in what Lieberman has to say. “It would be almost bizarre and have zero impact,” he said.

In the general election, however, “Lieberman’s help, depending on the audience and depending on how it’s delivered, could be useful and productive,” Healy said. For example, he said, the GOP nominee could woo key demographics, such as blue-collar conservative Democrats or defense hawks, with a targeted mailing featuring Lieberman.

Lieberman, for his part, seemed content to draw out the suspense about his role, although he conceded that no one has officially asked for his support yet. He said that Shays has come the closest, in a meeting the pair had earlier this year as Shays was solidifying his decision to run.

“He came in and told me he was running. And I wouldn’t say it was a formal request [for an endorsement] but that was the implication,” Lieberman said.

At the close of Wednesday’s hearing, Lieberman managed to slip in a reference to Shays soon-to-be-official Senate bid, coyly saying he hoped the former congressman would find someway be stay in public service. Shays, for his part, declined to discuss the Senate race at all, saying he couldn’t until his work on the commission was complete.

But in the hallway afterwards, he paused outside the door where senators were exiting the hearing room. When Lieberman appeared, Shays dramatically knelt down before Lieberman, then jumped up for a regular handshake and huddle.