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Lieberman crafts backup plan

Says he'll run even if he loses primary

HARTFORD -- Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, losing ground in a tough reelection race against a wealthy businessman, announced yesterday that he will appear on the ballot this fall even if he loses next month's Democratic primary, a hedge that could allow Lieberman to keep his Senate seat despite his support for the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

Lieberman, who is seeking his fourth six-year term, said he will remain a Democrat regardless of the outcome of the primary campaign, though a loss would force him to run without a party.

He said he needs a backup plan because of predictions that turnout in the midsummer primary will be low and because of the vast personal fortune of challenger Ned Lamont, 52, a cable television entrepreneur who is running as an antiwar candidate.

``While I believe that I will win the August 8 primary, I know that there are no guarantees in elections," Lieberman, 64, said in an announcement outside the state Capitol building in Hartford. ``After 18 years of working for, fighting for, and delivering for all the people of Connecticut, I want the opportunity to put my case before all the people of Connecticut in November."

The announcement represents a stark admission by Lieberman that he is in real danger of losing reelection to another Democrat, just six years after he was his party's vice presidential nominee and two years after a presidential run of his own.

Lamont, a political neophyte, has tapped into fierce antiwar sentiments and used his millions to emerge from obscurity and pose a serious threat to one of the nation's most prominent Democrats. He has ruled out an independent bid and has pledged to support Lieberman if Lieberman wins.

Still, Tom Swan , Lamont's campaign manager, said Lieberman is trying to ``game the system" because he knows that Lamont's candidacy is gaining momentum. Swan described Lieberman's decision as ``a move meant purely to preserve personal political power."

``He recognizes the strength of our campaign and the depth of support we have built in less than four months," Swan said. ``He thinks he knows better than the voters of Connecticut what is good for Connecticut. This is an affront to the people and shows that Lieberman will do anything to hang on to power."

Analysts said the decision could hurt Lieberman among Democratic primary voters, who may be further alienated by a senator who seems to be turning his back on the party's base. But the move may also boost the odds of Lieberman's reelection, since he would probably fare better in a general election with two opponents and a larger turnout than he would in a one-on-one primary campaign against a feisty antiwar candidate.

Recent polls have indicated a steady erosion in Lieberman's once-solid lead over Lamont, even though Lamont entered the campaign with virtually no name recognition among voters. A Rasmussen Reports poll last month gauged Lieberman's lead at 6 points, though other polls with larger sample sizes suggested that the senator's lead is in the double digits.

Lieberman would have a clearer advantage in a three-way race against Lamont and the little-known Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger, since independents and moderates from both parties appear likely to vote for Lieberman. In a three-candidate field, the Rasmussen poll has Lieberman leading the race at 44 percent, compared with Lamont's 29 percent and Schlesinger's 15 percent.

Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, wrote last week that it would be prudent for Lieberman to collect signatures for a run as an independent, perhaps his surest path to another term. ``That's a wise course, even if it also hurts him in the Democratic race, since his ultimate goal is winning another six-year term to represent Connecticut in the Senate," Rothenberg wrote.

But Lieberman's unusual decision to move his campaign on two tracks leaves state and national Democrats in a difficult position.

By custom, the Democratic establishment supports its incumbents, and most have lined up behind Lieberman in the primary. But they also typically support the winners of Democratic primaries, since those candidates represent the choice of the party faithful. Democratic leaders have not said how they would handle a Lamont victory in the primary.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Lieberman's announcement did not change party leaders' positions, including those of the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the campaign committee's chairman.

``Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and the DSCC are supporting Joe Lieberman in the primary," Singer said. ``We aren't going to speculate about what happens next, because that would undermine our candidate."

Lieberman has long been closely associated with his party's moderate and conservative wings. His positions on issues -- including school vouchers, affirmative action, and Social Security privatization -- have brought him closer to Republicans and has drawn fire from his party's liberals over the years.

On the Iraq war, Lieberman is generally supportive of President Bush, which angers most Democrats. Last month, Lieberman broke with nearly all other Senate Democrats to vote no on two resolutions that called on Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Lieberman acknowledged yesterday that many voters in Connecticut, a stronghold for Democrats, don't like his position on Iraq. But he said he believes the race should turn on more than one issue, and added that's why he wants to ensure his place on the November ballot.

``I know that I can do a better job to protect and advance the future of Connecticut than either my Democratic or Republican opponents," Lieberman said. ``I'm a loyal Democrat, but I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party, and that's my loyalty to my state and my country. . . . This is an act of pride and purpose and commitment to the future of both this country and the Democratic Party as I see it."

Lamont supporters, however, blasted Lieberman, saying he will hurt the very party he is purporting to protect. Eli Pariser, director of the liberal political interest group MoveOn.org, said Lieberman's plan ``reeks of arrogance" and shows that the senator is truly afraid of losing to Lamont.

``Joe Lieberman is holding himself above the democratic process by which his party chooses its candidates," Pariser said. ``Clearly he's reading the writing on the wall: Connecticut wants bold leaders who will stand up and fight on big issues like energy and Iraq, not ones who would accommodate a failed president."

Under Connecticut law, Lieberman must gather the signatures of 7,500 registered voters to appear on the ballot without a major-party designation. The signatures must be submitted by the day after the primary, meaning his campaign could not wait for the primary before beginning to compile them.

Unaffiliated candidates have some history of success in Connecticut. In 1990, former Republican Lowell P. Weicker Jr. was elected governor on his self-named ``A Connecticut Party" ticket.

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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