January 19, 2009 | last updated May 26, 2012 6:38 am

The New Guard

Connecticut's congressional delegation has been populated by the same seven to eight people for much of the last 25 years. Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman have been at the top, dominating state politics. But in the aftermath of the 2008 election, there are signs that the old guard is being ushered out and the new guard — that we may live with for the next 20 years — is emerging.

A poll conducted by the University of Connecticut, published in the Hartford Courant, shows a dramatic shift in opinion against Dodd and Lieberman. For different reasons, both men saw their approval ratings drop into the low 40s. This is significant in a state that historically favors incumbents, especially the ones based in Washington, D.C., whom we barely see.

Although Lieberman's support for the war and John McCain put him in a special category, both he and Dodd have one demerit in common: their thirst for the Oval Office. Lieberman ran twice, once on the ticket with Al Gore and once on his own. Dodd ran only once. But at the worst possible time, he had the audacity to move his family to Iowa, betting the people of Connecticut would take him back with open arms if he lost his bid for the White House.

Both senators have been welcomed back with less than open arms. Approval numbers below 50 percent are not insurmountable for two candidates as experienced and well funded as Dodd and Lieberman, but they are a sign of vulnerability. Ambitious birds of prey in both political parties are circling and watching for an opportunity. Many are betting Lieberman will not run in 2012 and others think Dodd may be persuaded to retire, to preserve his legacy as a senior statesman. It can be reliably reported, the conversations are taking place.

Next Generation

Whether the change happens over the next four years, or in another six, the 2008 election also served as an introduction for the next generation of Connecticut political leaders. At the front of the parade are three Democratic congressmen: Joe Courtney of eastern Connecticut, Chris Murphy, representing the newly redrawn 5th District and Jim Himes from Fairfield County.

Courtney and Murphy, having survived their first re-election campaigns, are well positioned to dominate state politics for years to come. Murphy, in particular, is seen as an aggressive and ambitious competitor who is very aware of future opportunities and not reluctant to go after them.

Himes, having just defeated Republican Chris Shays, is not guaranteed a place in the new guard. He needs to prove his mettle during his first term and win re-election. He may never be able to settle into his seat comfortably in a district that has been historically represented by liberal Republicans. Even so, he is young, has an interesting personal story and had the guts to take on an entrenched incumbent. He could be in position to move up fast or build seniority right where he is.

The Himes victory in the 4th District also opens up an opportunity for Republican state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney. His father, Stewart, held the Shays seat for nearly 15 years and many Republicans like the idea of the son following the father to Capitol Hill. But with Dodd and Lieberman in trouble, he should consider using his name recognition to run for the Senate.

When you hear it said that politics is brutal, this is what they mean. We build up the image of those we elect only to dump them when fatigue sets in. The trick is in knowing when it's time to step up and when it's time to walk away.

Dean Pagani is a former gubernatorial advisor. He is V.P. of Public Affairs for Cashman and Katz Integrated Communications in Glastonbury.

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