WASHINGTON–In an early skirmish in what is likely to be a tough fight for the 2012 Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, Susan Bysiewicz and Chris Murphy squared off this week over the war in Afghanistan–an issue on which their differences appear to be largely a matter of degree.

Bysiewicz opened a debate on this hot-button issue–which particularly resonates with liberal primary voters–by suggesting that Murphy supported a “long-standing” presence in Afghanistan and by seemingly trying to tie the 5th District congressman to Sen. Joe Lieberman, a military hawk who is reviled by the anti-war left.

In an interview Thursday, Bysiewicz also called for “an immediate withdrawal” of U.S. troops, seeming to align herself with those who have sought to block funding for the war. “I would support bringing our troops home right now, and I think we need to really change our mission in Afghanistan to focus on intelligence and special forces operations,” she said.

When asked if that meant she would support legislation to defund the war, Bysiewicz simply reiterated her support for immediate withdrawal. Two hours later, her campaign issued a statement calling on Murphy to explain his vote against a resolution, sponsored by anti-war firebrand Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, directing President Barack Obama to “remove” all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Murphy noted that he is on record in favor of drawing down U.S. troops on the Obama Administration’s current timetable, starting in July 2011. And he seemed perplexed at Bysiewicz’s comments. “What does that mean, ‘an immediate withdrawal’? Like tomorrow?” Murphy said when asked about Bysiewicz’s position.

“I support bringing our troops home starting this summer,” he said. But “it simply doesn’t make sense to cut off the money starting tomorrow… Anybody that’s serious about this issue knows that we need to bring our troops home in a safe, orderly, fashion and that we are going to have to have some continued relationship with the Afghan government to help them stand up and train their police and an army forces.”

Only 85 Democrats and 8 Republicans voted for the Kucinich resolution. Among the Connecticut delegation, Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, a vocal critic of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was the only “yea” vote.

As with many other Democrats, Murphy has supported President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, which involved sending thousands of new U.S. troops to the country, mounting an aggressive counter-insurgency effort, and setting a July 2011 target date for the beginning of a troop drawdown. But Murphy has also consistently indicated that he doesn’t want to see that deadline slip, and he’s called on the Administration to take a tougher line on corruption within the Afghan government.

Bysiewicz sparked this week’s back-and-forth by issuing a press release on Wednesday seizing on comments that Murphy made in an interview with Radio Free Europe, as he was departing for a congressional trip to Afghanistan. In that interview, Murphy reiterated his support for withdrawal but added that the U.S. was going to need a “long-standing presence” in the country to help the Afghan government build its security and civil services, among other things.

“I am someone who believes that we should begin a drawdown of our forces in Afghanistan, but I think we have to have a recognition that we are going to need a long-standing presence in that country,” he said to Radio Free Europe. “I think we have to recognize that there are going to be some long-standing needs both for civilian and military partnership.”

Bysiewicz’s Wednesday press release called for “full withdrawal” and said her position highlighted a “key difference” between her and Murphy. She pointed to the Radio Free Europe interview, but only used half his quote–the part that included “long-standing presence.”

“I strongly disagree with Congressman Murphy on this issue,” her statement said. “Connecticut Democrats deserve a replacement to Senator Joe Lieberman who will consistently be progressive on removing US troops from Afghanistan.”

Lieberman, of course, is the man both Murphy and Bysiewicz are trying to succeed. The retiring senator’s support for the Iraq war, along with other military conflicts, has made him a villain of the left-the same voters who are likely to be pivotal in the Democratic primary race between Murphy and Bysiewicz. State Rep. William Tong is also running for the seat. His campaign spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment.

In the interview, Bysiewicz said she isn’t trying to tar Murphy with a Lieberman brush. She said her news release is “absolutely not” a move to rev up liberal voters who could be decisive in the primary.

“I have spoken to people all over Connecticut who are Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters,” she said. “From my conversations, people in every part of the state… are very tired of having our troops there and of spending billions dollars that we do not have and losing lives in the Middle East.”

“I am simply pointing out a very strong difference in our approaches,” she added.

Murphy declined to comment on the political implications of the issue. And he demurred when asked about Bysiewicz’s characterization of their positions as presenting a “strong and clear difference.”

“This is not an issue of comparative politics for me,” he said. “I’m using both my voice and my vote here in Washington to fight on a daily basis to bring our troops home.”

Murphy has sought in recent months to raise his profile on foreign policy issues in general and Afghanistan in particular. He sought–and won–a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the beginning of this year. And like Bysiewicz, he said he’s found that voters in the state are keenly interested and engaged when it comes to Afghanistan.

When he got back from his Afghanistan trip, he sent out an email to constituents–a “behind-the-scenes” journal recounting his experience. The note included snippets like this one, describing his reaction to seeing a poppy field, the plant used to make heroin:

“I think to myself, why on earth would the Army bring us to a town full of poppy production?” Murphy writes in the account, which he posted on My Left Nutmeg. “But then I realize, there’s really no place they could bring us that doesn’t have poppy. So, with one hand we’re building up an Afghan police force to repel the Taliban, and with the other, we’re building them irrigation canals to help them grow poppy which raises money for the Taliban.  This couldn’t be more backward.”

Murphy said the email has generated a “tremendous amount of feedback” from constituents. So much so that he is holding a conference call with voters tonight, organized by his Senate campaign, to talk more in-depth about Afghanistan. And he’s got a town hall scheduled on Sunday in his district on the subject.

With all that activity, it’s perhaps no wonder Bysiewicz felt the need to weigh in. “Congressman Murphy is injecting this issue into the race,” said her campaign spokesman, Mark Bergman.

John Droney, a longtime Lieberman supporter and former chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee, said it’s not a surprise this has become a hot issue.

“What’s going on here is you’ve got two politicians jockeying for position on a very important issue that’s become more interesting as a result of us, thank God, killing Osama bin Laden,” he said.

Droney said it’s a no-brainer for any candidate hoping to attract the attention of liberals in the state. And it’s probably a savvy political move for Bysiewicz to try to link Murphy to Lieberman.

“If she could, she would,” he said, since Lieberman is “the boogeyman for those just playing short left field.”

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