HARTFORD -- Antiwar fervor helped topple Senator Joseph I. Lieberman yesterday in his bid for the Democratic nomination for his Senate seat, with challenger Ned Lamont capitalizing on President Bush's low approval ratings to pull off a once-unthinkable upset of one of the nation's most prominent Democrats.
Lamont, a 52-year-old millionaire businessman and political neophyte, edged out Lieberman with a populist message centered primarily on unease over the war in Iraq, which Lieberman has steadfastly supported. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Lamont led with 51.79 percent of the vote, to Lieberman's 48.21 percent.
Lieberman last night immediately reiterated his vow to run as an independent candidate, setting up a November rematch that could distract from Democrats' efforts to oust Republicans this year.
But the evening belonged to Lamont, who emerged from near-total obscurity to defeat the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee on his own turf. Fueled with $4 million from his personal fortune -- and boosted by liberal bloggers who adopted his cause as their own -- Lamont sent a message with his victory to the party establishment about how the Democratic rank-and-file views the war.
``They call Connecticut the land of steady habits. Tonight we voted for a big change," Lamont said last night to cheers at his campaign celebration in Meriden. ``Stay the course -- it's not a winning strategy for Iraq, and it's not a winning strategy for America."
Turnout topped 40 percent, breaking the state's 36-year-old record for a non-presidential year despite predictions that turnout would be low because the primary was held in the middle of vacation season.
Lieberman last night offered his congratulations to Lamont but quickly added that, while he is disappointed, he took heart in the fact that the race ended up being closer than many observers predicted. He said his campaign will offer an alternative to the bitter partisanship that he said has gripped Washington, and described himself as an ``independent Democrat."
``We finished the first half, and the Lamont team is ahead," Lieberman told campaign supporters, with his family fanned out behind him. ``But in the second half, our team -- `team Connecticut' -- is going to surge forward to victory."
Lieberman's campaign collected signatures to appear on the November ballot as an independent, in what he called his ``insurance policy" in case he was swamped by anti war voters. Those petitions will be filed with the secretary of state's office today, Lieberman said.
Polls have shown Lieberman a clear front-runner in a three-way race against Lamont and the little-known Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger. Last night's relatively narrow margin of victory -- a poll released last Thursday had Lamont up 13 points -- could strengthen Lieberman's position that he should put his case before all Connecticut voters.
Lieberman aides said last night that the way the race tightened in the closing days showed that Lamont is untested as a candidate, and that his supporters aren't committed to his candidacy.
But Lamont's victory could change Lieberman's equation by shifting momentum and crucial fund-raising dollars in the direction of the freshly minted Democratic nominee, and pressure could build on Lieberman to withdraw in the name of party unity. Connecticut is home to three House Republicans whom Democrats are targeting, and another Lamont-Lieberman race could complicate those efforts.
Representative Maxine Waters -- a veteran California Democrat and outspoken opponent of the Iraq war who is one of Lamont's most vocal supporters -- said that any Democrat thinking of running for president in 2008 is obliged to visit Connecticut and campaign for Lamont in the general election.
``I expect to see them all come in for Ned Lamont," Waters said. ``If they don't, they stand to tear apart the Democratic Party." A beaming Lamont was joined on stage shortly after 11 p.m. by the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others.
State party officials have scheduled a rally for this morning in Hartford to showcase its nominees for major offices -- an event that Lieberman won't be featured at.
The campaign's final day was marred by accusations of political dirty tricks. When Lieberman's campaign realized its official website had been overloaded, Lieberman accused Lamont supporters of sabotage. The site included tools the campaign used to reach Lieberman backers, as well as information about polling sites and help with transportation to voting locations.
Lamont's campaign has attracted hundreds of Internet-savvy bloggers, and, although Lieberman admitted he had no evidence the Lamont camp was guilty, ``you'd assume it wasn't any casual observer" who darkened the site on Election Day, he said. Lieberman aides said they referred the matter to law enforcement authorities for possible criminal charges related to vote suppression.
Lamont dismissed the accusation as ``just another scurrilous charge" by a desperate incumbent. He also publicly urged whoever is responsible for the problems to stop.
The victory by Lamont caps a stunning shift in fortunes for Lieberman, whose reelection seemed to be a mere formality coming into the year. Just six years ago, Lieberman was the party's nominee for vice president, and in 2004 he launched his own presidential bid. Yesterday, the 64-year-old Lieberman became just the fourth incumbent US senator since 1980 to lose in a primary.
Lieberman's reputation for cooperating with Republicans -- and particularly his continued support for the war in Iraq and for Bush as commander-in-chief -- left Lieberman out of step with many Democrats in his home state.
Max Medina Jr., a member of the Bridgeport Board of Education and a lifelong Democrat, said yesterday outside a polling station in Bridgeport that Lieberman was out of line when he suggested that criticizing Bush's management of the Iraq war could harm the country.
``I was absolutely livid that a fellow Democrat -- my senator -- was telling me and millions of other Democrats that we were disloyal Americans just because we were criticizing George Bush during a time of war," Medina said. ``That's outrageous."
Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, said Lamont's victory sends a message that Democrats are ``tired of losing" and are willing to oust incumbents of either party who support GOP priorities in Washington.
Lieberman has warned that a Lamont victory would allow Republicans to portray Democrats as too liberal to defend the country, favoring a ``cut and run" strategy in Iraq rather than standing up to terrorists.
Indeed, hours before the polls closed yesterday, Senate majority whip Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on Fox News that ``the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party is staging a comeback" in the form of Lamont's challenge to Lieberman, referring to George McGovern, the Democrats' 1972 presidential nominee, who lost in a landslide in a campaign that focused on opposition to the Vietnam War.
``It's a problem for Joe Lieberman short term. I think it's a problem for Democrats long term," McConnell said.
In the campaign's final day, Lieberman was forced to cancel two afternoon events when it became clear that there wouldn't be enough of his supporters to greet at the polling sites his campaign had selected. Lieberman instead spent the afternoon calling local Democratic and union officials to urge them to boost get-out-the-vote efforts.
As his ``Joe's Tomorrow Tour" campaign bus pulled into New Haven yesterday for one of its final stops, Lieberman appeared in good spirits. He stood in the back of the bus, surrounded by his wife, Hadassah, and some aides, and sang along to a Frank Sinatra classic: ``I did it my way . . ."
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.