By John Whitesides
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman lost a Democratic Party showdown to a relative unknown on Tuesday, a casualty of voter anger over his support for the war in Iraq and President George W. Bush.
Six years after he was chosen the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Lieberman fell in a tight Senate primary battle to wealthy businessman Ned Lamont, who called him a cheerleader for Bush and urged voters to send an anti-war message to the country.
Lieberman conceded defeat but said he would file petitions on Wednesday to run as an independent in November.
"Tomorrow, we launch a new campaign to unite the people of Connecticut," he told cheering supporters at a downtown Hartford hotel. "If you’re fed up with the nasty partisanship in Washington, then I ask your help."
Lamont’s outsider bid to unseat the three-term senator in Democratic-leaning Connecticut offered a gauge of anti-war sentiment among voters before the election in November, when control of Congress will be up for grabs.
"Connecticut voters do not call for change lightly but today we called for change decisively. No more stay the course," Lamont told supporters at a victory celebration in Meriden, where he was flanked by black leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
"Stay the course is not a winning strategy in Iraq and it is not a winning strategy in America," said Lamont, who sent an e-mail to supporters asking them to contact Lieberman and urge him to reconsider his independent bid.
The Connecticut race attracted national attention as a referendum on the war and Democratic anger at Bush, with Lamont calling Lieberman a Bush "lapdog."
Lieberman fought back, emphasizing his experience and Democratic credentials and calling himself a reliable opponent of Bush’s domestic agenda.
He argued a quick pullout of troops "would be a disaster for Iraqis and for us" but said the Bush administration had made mistakes in its conduct of the war.
LIEBERMAN TO RUN AS INDEPENDENT
Lieberman wrote a Wall Street Journal article last year headlined "Our Troops Must Stay" and warned Democrats about criticizing Bush on the war.
Lamont, whose last bid for public office was an unsuccessful 1990 state Senate race, will be the Democratic Senate nominee in November against Republican Alan Schlesinger, a former state legislator seen as little threat.
To run as an independent, Lieberman must file petitions with 7,500 valid signatures with the Connecticut Secretary of State by the end of the day on Wednesday.
Lieberman, who held a wide lead in polls over Lamont in May but trailed him by double digits in a poll last week, portrayed his loss by a spread of 52-48 percent as a sign of momentum and called it "a much closer race than all the pundits were predicting."
Polls show Lieberman, who draws support from independents and Republicans, leading in a three-way race with Lamont and Schlesinger but that could change after Lamont’s primary win and months of heavy media coverage for the challenger.
His independent bid will also put pressure on congressional Democrats in Washington, who will have to choose between supporting Lamont, the choice of Democratic voters in Connecticut, or their colleague Lieberman.
Lamont’s win offered vindication to the army of grass roots Internet activists who rallied around his campaign and provided volunteer muscle and energy for the cable television executive and political novice.
Lamont spent more than $3 million of his own money and a total of $5 million on the campaign, although he was still outspent by Lieberman’s $7 million campaign.
More than 275,000 ballots were cast in the primary, in which about 27,000 newly registered Democrats were able to vote. Some towns in Connecticut were recording more than 50 percent turnout, officials said, high for a primary.
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