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Democrats back Lamont candidacy

Lieberman presses independent run

HARTFORD -- State and national Democratic Party leaders yesterday lined up behind Ned Lamont, the party's Senate nominee, despite three-term incumbent Senator Joseph I. Lieberman's promise to fight on as an independent candidate in November's general election.

As Lieberman submitted more than 18,000 signatures to secure a place on the November ballot yesterday, Lamont gained endorsements from prominent Democrats, including Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Howard Dean, party chairman.

Incumbent moderates fare the worst in primaries. A6

Even Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who has worked alongside Lieberman for nearly two decades, made a ``very difficult" decision to break with his longtime friend to back Lamont. Speaking at the state Democratic Party's ``unity rally" in downtown Hartford, Dodd said the Senate race ``isn't just about relationships and friendships or about candidacies," but about the people they represent.

``And while I may disagree and regret the choice they made," Dodd said, ``I have great respect for the choice they made."

Lieberman's upset loss jolted the nation's political establishment, and leaders of both parties scrambled to assess the fallout. The come-from-nowhere campaign of Lamont -- a millionaire businessman whose signature issue is his opposition to the Iraq war -- suggests that 2006 could be a difficult year for incumbents across the political spectrum.

Pledging to stay in the race ``to the end," Lieberman declared that no one can persuade him to drop out. Lieberman, who hired a new campaign manager and spokesman yesterday, expressed confidence that he will win a three-way race against Lamont and Alan Schlesinger, the Republican nominee, and he cast the fall campaign as a battle for his party's soul.

``It is a cause not to let this Democratic Party that I joined with the inspiration of President Kennedy in 1960 to be taken over by people who are so far from the mainstream of American life that I fear we will not elect Democrats in the numbers that we should in the future," he told CNN yesterday.

With Democratic turnout at about 43 percent -- a state record for a summertime primary in a nonpresidential election year -- Lamont appeared to benefit from the nearly 30,000 voters who joined the Democratic Party in time for one of the most intriguing political matchups in the state's history.

Lamont wins in liberal parts of the state's major cities, including New Haven, Hartford, West Hartford, and his hometown of Greenwich, overcame Lieberman's labor-driven support in places like Bridgeport, Stamford, and Waterbury.

``It was the war in Iraq and Senator Lieberman's support for it that energized Democrats to defeat him," said Kenneth Dautrich, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut. But Dautrich added that Lamont's relatively narrow, 10,000-vote victory among generally liberal Democratic primary voters suggests that Lieberman enters the general election as the favorite, with anticipated support from independent and Republican voters.

Largely seen as a referendum on the Iraq war, the primary exposed deep fault lines between moderate Democrats like Lieberman, who voted for the war, and liberals such as Lamont, who vehemently opposes it. Republicans wasted no time in exploiting the split: The National Republican Senatorial Committee challenged Democrats to choose between ``fringe candidate Ned Lamont or the 2000 VP nominee, Joe Lieberman."

Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, told a gathering in Cleveland yesterday that Lamont's win shows that ``defeatism and isolationism are now Democratic Party orthodoxy," and chided the party for casting out Lieberman.

``Like the proud history of so many Democrats before him, Joe Lieberman believed in a strong national defense," Mehlman said. ``And for that, he was purged from his party."

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney said that Lieberman's defeat reflects a ``pre-9/11 mind-set" among Democrats.

Referring to Lamont's antiwar stance, Cheney said insurgents and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda ``clearly are betting on the proposition that ultimately they can break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task" in Iraq.

Democrats, however, argued that the high turnout for an upstart challenger like Lamont suggests that voters want change; a New York Times/CBS News exit poll conducted Tuesday suggested that a majority of primary voters were angry about the war, and 59 percent of those surveyed thought Lieberman is too close to President Bush.

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that's good news heading into the midterm Congressional elections, since Republicans now control the House, the Senate, and the presidency.

``There is a message [in] the level of anti-incumbency," said Emanuel . ``That's a good thing for us going into the elections in November, and it should be a flashing red light to the Republicans."

Still, some Democrats expressed concern that Lieberman's pledge to keep running could hamper the party's goal of ousting Republicans this fall. Connecticut is home to three moderate Republican House members who are high on the Democrats' target list for November.

Representative John Larson -- a Connecticut Democrat who, like Dodd, switched his allegiance from incumbent Lieberman to challenger Lamont -- said he hopes Lieberman will drop out so Democrats can join forces for the fall.

``We're prepared to take this fight to the Republicans and give notice to people that have supported George Bush and his policies that things are about to change," Larson said.

For the most part, the senators who lined up behind Lamont stopped short of asking Lieberman to step aside, leaving that decision to him.

At a campaign event in New York City, Clinton urged Lieberman to ``search his conscience" before going forward with an independent bid.

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