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To Stay In, Lieberman Faces an Uphill Climb

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Times Staff Writers

After losing the Democratic nomination and seeing longtime political allies and national party leaders endorse his opponent, Sen. Joe Lieberman set off Wednesday on a rarely traveled path: trying to win election to the U.S. Senate as an independent.

It will be a daunting task.

He will no longer be able to turn to party committees for money needed to compete against the multimillionaire Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, who won Tuesday’s primary, 52% to 48%.

Nor can Lieberman expect big-name Democrats to come to campaign for him, as occurred in the weeks preceding the primary when former President Clinton and others rallied to his side. Instead, he can expect relentless attacks questioning his loyalty to the Democratic cause and intensifying pressure that he drop out of the race.

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“Can he win? Yes. Is it hard? Absolutely,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Washington-based, nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

The contentious Connecticut contest, shaping up as the backdrop for some of this year’s most memorable political theater, quickly was marked by several unusual developments.

Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political strategist, called the Lieberman campaign Tuesday night. The White House said the call was purely “personal.”

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, publicly declined to endorse his own party’s Senate candidate when pressed on MSNBC on Wednesday. Vice President Dick Cheney, usually media-averse, participated in a conference call with reporters to talk about the Connecticut race -- and express regret about Lieberman’s defeat.

Cheney said he had “a good deal of respect” for Lieberman, his counterpart on the Democratic presidential ticket six years ago whose political career has been imperiled by his strong support for the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

Cheney said he considered it “a perhaps unfortunate and significant development” for Democrats that they would “in effect, purge a man like Joe Lieberman.”

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Whether such remarks would help or hurt the senator as he fights for his political life was unclear. But Lieberman left little doubt that he was committed to the battle.

As his campaign filed with state officials the petition signatures required to qualify him as an independent candidate, Lieberman told NBC’s “Today” show that, “I am committed to this campaign -- to a different kind of politics, to bringing the Democratic Party back from the extreme ... to the mainstream.”

With the national prominence he gained as the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee -- he was the first Jew to be named to a major party’s White House ticket -- he may be able to draw upon a web of donors across the country. An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that of the $6 million in campaign contributions he amassed since 2001, almost 75% in excess of $200 came from out-of-state sources.

As a centrist, Lieberman hopes to draw substantial support from independents, who make up close to half of Connecticut’s registered voters. And the race’s Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, generally is viewed as weak; he has been plagued by a recent revelation that gambling debts at two Atlantic City, N.J., casinos led to lawsuits against him.

Some GOP leaders in Connecticut have been urging Schlesinger to drop out to allow Republicans to field a candidate they believe would stand a better chance of capturing the seat for the party. Schlesinger has given no indication he plans to heed that advice, but if he steps down before Oct. 1, party leaders could name a replacement.

Lieberman, in assessing his chances, said he was encouraged by the relatively close primary vote. “We closed very strong. A poll had us behind 13 [percentage] points last week,” he said on the “Today” show.

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Lamont, for his part, reveled in a victory that saw him emerge from obscurity to topple a seemingly entrenched officeholder. His success was fueled largely by support from liberal activists and bloggers upset with Lieberman’s support for the Iraq war, and Lamont on Wednesday reflected on his candidacy’s national implications.

“I think people around the country are looking at Connecticut,” he said at a news conference. “We want a change of course; we want a change of course in Iraq, and we want to start investing in our own country again.”

During an appearance on PBS’ “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Lamont gingerly prodded Lieberman to reconsider his independent candidacy.

“I respect Sen. Lieberman. And he’s doing, I guess, what he thinks he has to do. I wish he would stay with the Democratic Party. I wish he would abide by the rules of the Democratic primary.”

National Democratic leaders, almost all of whom had supported Lieberman in the primary, quickly lined up behind Lamont.

In a joint statement, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the party’s Senate campaign committee, said, “The Democratic voters of Connecticut have spoken.”

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While praising Lieberman as an “effective Democratic senator,” they added that “the perception was that he was too close to George Bush, and this election was, in many respects, a referendum on the president more than anything else.”

Neither Reid nor Schumer traveled to Connecticut for a “unity” rally the state party convened for Lamont, and they and other prominent Democrats faced growing pressure to more forcefully disassociate themselves from Lieberman and his independent candidacy.

Some in the party’s left wing expressed concern about how fervently the leadership would aid Lamont -- and how much money would be funneled his way from party coffers.

David Sirota, a congressional aide turned liberal commentator and author, urged readers of his blog Wednesday to call Democratic officeholders and ask: “Will you unequivocally endorse Democratic nominee Ned Lamont and not package that endorsement with salivating praise for Joe Lieberman -- a man who is aggressively moving to undermine the Democratic Party?”

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the liberal website Daily Kos, called on Reid to strip Lieberman of his Senate committee assignments -- an idea rejected by Reid’s office.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was among several of Lieberman’s colleagues who campaigned for him during the last month, was one of the few Senate Democrats who not only endorsed Lamont but publicly called on Lieberman to drop out of the race.

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At least two Democratic senators -- Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois -- wrote campaign checks to Lamont through their political action committees.

But at least two other Democratic senators -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- said they were standing by Lieberman and his independent candidacy.

Lamont aide George Jepsen said he thought there remained a possibility that Lieberman would pull out “when the dust settles and he looks at the potential damage to his legacy,” and if “people who he likes and trusts ... counsel him not to” run.

Political analysts suggested Lieberman would be guided by how well he fared in polls and in fundraising in the weeks ahead.

A poll taken before the primary showed Lieberman winning a three-way race, but his loss to Lamont could undercut his support, the analysts said.

“If his poll numbers start heading down, he ceases to be a contender and turns into a spoiler,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “He’s got to get out there and look viable.... That means, at the outset, continuing to campaign vigorously.”

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The awkward and in some cases painful political shifts sparked by Lamont’s victory were apparent at Wednesday’s gathering of Connecticut Democrats to pledge their support for him.

Participants included the state’s senior senator, Christopher J. Dodd, who was with Lieberman at his headquarters after the polls closed Tuesday night. He spoke warmly, and sadly, about his colleague.

“We’re very good friends, and we have been for many, many years,” Dodd said.

But he added, “This isn’t about friendships and relationships ... it’s about the people we seek to represent, the people who share our values and ideals, who came out in the numbers they did [in the primary] to tell us about their choices. And while I may disagree or regret the choice they made, I have great respect for the choice they made.”

Attorney Richard Blumenthal, who supported Lieberman in the primary, acknowledged that the gathering felt surreal.

“I can say without any fear of contradiction that none of us envisioned being here in this room all together as recently as six months ago, and nobody would have even imagined this outcome,” he said.

He continued: “I am supporting Joe Lieberman.”

Realizing his mistake, he quickly corrected himself: “I am supporting Ned Lamont.”

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