Sen. Joe Lieberman, facing a major challenge in Connecticut's Democratic primary because of his support for the war in Iraq, decided Monday to hedge his bets on his political future.
If he loses his party's Aug. 8 primary, he will seek to run as an independent in the November general election, he announced.
"I am a loyal Democrat," the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee told CNN. "But I have a loyalty higher than that to my party. That is to my state and my country."
He added, "I'm essentially taking out an insurance policy."
Lieberman's move underscored the threat to his renomination posed by antiwar candidate Ned Lamont, a businessman. Once considered to have little chance of defeating the incumbent, Lamont has gained momentum by hammering away at Lieberman's staunch backing of President Bush's "stay the course" policy in Iraq.
Lieberman has given no ground. During the Senate's recent consideration of two Democratic-sponsored measures pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, he opened the debate for opponents of the proposals. His stance has angered many liberals -- and intensified support for Lamont -- in a state where polls show that discontent with the Iraq war runs high.
A Lamont victory in the primary and a Lieberman independent candidacy presumably would improve the chances that the little-known Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, could score an upset in November. And a GOP takeover of Lieberman's seat would deal a hard blow to Democratic hopes of winning control of the Senate.
Connecticut law forced Lieberman's hand on potentially running as an independent, even as he remains a candidate in the Democratic race. He can qualify for the November ballot if he gathers 7,500 valid signatures. That's a relatively low number, but his petitions must be received by 4 p.m. Aug. 9 -- the day after the primary.
Lieberman, a centrist first elected to the Senate in 1988, insisted he was committed to winning the primary.
But speaking in Hartford, Conn., during a congressional recess, he said, "While I believe that I will win the Aug. 8 primary, I know that there are no guarantees in elections."
He added that he will remain a registered Democrat even if he loses the primary.
Lieberman said he was preparing for an independent bid because he wanted to be sure he had "the opportunity to make my case to all the voters in November."
He has complained that Lamont's candidacy is fueled by activists focused on a single issue -- the war -- who are ignoring his overall record.
Lamont's campaign manager, Tom Swan, accused Lieberman of trying to "game the system" in plotting an independent candidacy.
"This is an affront to the people and shows that Lieberman will do anything to hang on to power," he said in a statement.
The director of the political arm for MoveOn.org, the online liberal advocacy group, accused Lieberman of arrogance.
Eli Pariser -- executive director of MoveOn's political action committee, which recently endorsed Lamont -- said Lieberman was "clearly reading the writing on the wall: Connecticut wants bold leaders who will stand up and fight on big issues ... not ones who would accommodate a failed president."
But Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, called Lieberman's announcement a "smart move to ensure that a small slice of the electorate doesn't determine what the choice of the voters of Connecticut is going to be in the general election."
Charlie Cook, a Washington political analyst who publishes the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Lieberman's decision "maximizes his chances of remaining in the Senate, and it bolsters his potential argument that 'I didn't leave the party, the party left me.' "
An independent run by Lieberman would put some of his Democratic Senate colleagues in an awkward position -- whom do they support in November?
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, recently told the NBC News show "Meet the Press" that he would "support the Democratic nominee, whoever that is."
But other Democratic senators have declined to commit themselves, saying they hope Lieberman renders the question moot by winning the primary.