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Lieberman makes final push before Conn. primary

He tours state while Lamont camp is mostly quiet on eve

ENFIELD, Conn. -- Buoyed by a final poll showing his campaign has surged in advance of today's Democratic primary, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman yesterday declared himself ``Connecticut's comeback kid" and predicted that voters will stick with him because they don't want to lose an experienced voice in Congress.

In a hectic, last-minute push to head off challenger Ned Lamont, a first-time candidate largely defined by his opposition to the Iraq war, Lieberman shuttled across the state yesterday in a green-and-white ``Joe's Tomorrow Tour" bus to shake hands at construction sites, restaurants, an insurance company, and a Little League game.

Referring to Lamont's come-from-nowhere campaign, Lieberman said voters have already delivered him an unmistakable message against Iraq. Though that hasn't changed his support for the Iraq war, he said it has shown him he needs to be ``clearer" about his efforts to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

``I think people are turning around and saying, `Hey, we were thinking of sending Joe a message [on Election Day], but I think he got the message, and we don't want to lose him as our senator,' " Lieberman said after meeting with insurance company employees in Enfield.

``If Ned Lamont ever got to Washington -- which he will not -- he would be just another partisan, unproductive, polarizing senator," he added.

Later, Lamont shot back that he and Lieberman still disagree on a range of issues, with the war in Iraq at the top of the list. Voters are demanding change, he said, and that means they will choose him on Election Day.

``Has [Lieberman] gotten the message? As far as I can figure out he still wants to keep the troops in Iraq. He still supports the Cheney energy bill," Lamont told reporters last night outside his campaign headquarters in New Haven. ``The senator's wrong on some big issues that I care about and that an awful lot of other people care about, and that's why we're going to win."

A Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday showed support for Lieberman rebounding in the campaign's closing days. Though Lamont was shown leading 51-to-45, that margin was less than half the lead he enjoyed Thursday, when a Quinnipiac poll had Lamont up 54-to-41.

The poll's director, Douglas Schwartz, said the results suggest Lieberman's last-ditch pitch -- that the state must keep its veteran three-term senator -- has reached voters. The shift also suggest that the race is ``unsettled," though Lamont remains the slight favorite, Schwartz said.

The race has taken on national significance as a test of whether voter dissatisfaction about the war can endanger even high-profile Democrats who voted for it. It is also being closely watched to see if the blog-driven fervor that has boosted Lamont's candidacy will translate into real votes against an incumbent who enjoys the support of the party establishment.

While Lieberman crammed in public appearances yesterday, the Lamont campaign was mostly quiet -- a sharp break from the frenetic pace he has kept in recent weeks. Lamont said the intense media scrutiny that he has attracted recently had become ``just a little distracting," so he limited his schedule to private events and one-on-one media interviews after a pair of early-morning appearances greeting workers in New London and Groton.

In the campaign's closing hours yesterday, Lieberman has sought to distance himself from Bush and reestablish his Democratic credentials. In a speech Sunday, he laid out differences of opinion between him and the president -- including aspects of the Iraq war's execution -- and blasted Lamont for what he said where ``lies" about his record.

At the Rajun Cajun diner in Hartford, supporters launched a spontaneous chant that could be Lieberman's unofficial campaign slogan: ``Vote for the one you know: Joe!"

Republicans want Lamont to take the primary, Lieberman said, so they'll have ammunition to attack Democrats as soft on the war against terrorism.

``The Republicans are anxious to say, if Ned Lamont wins tomorrow, that the left-wing has taken over the Democratic Party, Lieberman said.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and a Lieberman supporter, said the race will turn on whether his colleague can beat the perception that he is an enabler for Bush who won't fight the Republicans' congressional agenda.

``They have unfairly linked Joe with President Bush, and on that basis, they've been able to be successful up to now," Dodd said. ``We'll see the results. . . . I'm still believing Joe can win this race."

Should he lose, however, Lieberman has vowed to run as an independent against Lamont and the Republican nominee, Alan Schlesinger. Polls have shown Lieberman would be the front-runner in a three-way race, but a Lamont victory could shift Democratic Party support to Lamont, and Lieberman could find himself under pressure to withdraw.

Lieberman ducked questions about his contingency plans, saying he is focusing on winning the primary. Lamont, who has promised he will yield to Lieberman if the senator wins, reiterated his call on Lieberman to step aside in defeat.

``If he doesn't, if wants to also run as an independent and try and have it both ways, I'll be there to run against him a second time around," Lamont said.

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