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Lieberman faces his war critics

Hecklers plague senator at parade as primary looms

WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- Senator Joseph I. Lieberman was smiling past the hecklers yesterday in this town's massive Independence Day parade. ``Shame on you!" one yelled. ``War-monger!" screamed another. ``You're a traitor, Joe!" came a third voice.

Lieberman's grin didn't break. Jogging to keep pace, the Connecticut Democrat responded with kisses -- some blown to the crowd, others of the Hershey's variety, distributed by campaign volunteers.

When one heckler marched alongside the senator and continued to hurl vitriol in his direction, Lieberman's wife, Hadassah, suggested a response.

``Send him a kiss," Hadassah Lieberman said. Campaign aides obliged, with chocolate.

It was a clever play on the purported ``kiss" that has become the most famous embrace in this state's political history.

A few hundred yards behind the Liebermans, giant papier-mâché heads of Lieberman and President Bush were locking lips in a pose meant to evoke memories of the president's bear hug of Lieberman -- the senator insists that no kiss was involved -- after Bush's 2005 State of the Union address.

``Just [politically] married," read the sign on the back of the float, which was constructed by some of the liberal bloggers who are backing Lieberman's challenger, Ned Lamont.

A day after sending a jolt through the political establishment by saying he will run for a fourth term even if he loses the Democratic nomination, Lieberman confronted face-to-face much of the anger that has fueled the campaign of Lamont. The cheers for Lieberman still generally swamped the boos, but the senator saw up close what he's up against in the final month of the Democratic primary campaign.

Lieberman pronounced himself unconcerned about the reaction, calling his critics a ``distinct minority." He said he still thinks he'll win the Aug. 8 primary, and said members of all parties in Connecticut will ultimately support him because they respect his heartfelt belief that the war in Iraq remains necessary.

``I am a hugger, not a hater," Lieberman said after the parade in Willimantic, a small town about 30 miles east of Hartford. ``But when I disagree, I'm going to have the courage of my convictions to do what's right for my state or my country."

But Lamont said Lieberman's decision to begin collecting signatures for a possible run as an unaffiliated candidate confirms what he's been saying about the senator all along: that he too often stands against the interest of Democrats.

``Senator Lieberman every day inches more and more toward non-Democrat status," Lamont said. ``Too often he hedges his bets. People want to know who you are, what you believe, and what you stand for."

Lamont drew virtually no hecklers yesterday in Willimantic, and was swarmed for handshakes by Democrats who said they're fed up with Lieberman. In a vacation-season election, fervor for Lamont -- and against Lieberman -- could be decisive, said Paul Best, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

``I don't feel a passion, frankly, for Lieberman," Best said. ``If there is a passion, it is going to be on the side of Lamont, because of the war situation."

It is the Iraq war above all else where Lieberman's break with party orthodoxy has upset the voters who have sent him to the Senate for three terms.

Mary Thompson, a travel agent who saw Lamont march yesterday in Canterbury, said Lieberman's position on the war shows that he's working to advance his own agenda more than representing the views of Connecticut voters.

``I've always thought Joe Lieberman is a very good man, but lately, he seems like a Bush man, not a Democrat," Thompson said. ``He's not there to state his own opinions. He's there for representing the people who put him in office."

Terry Jackson, a 63-year-old T-shirt printer who lives in Pomfret, said the fact that Lieberman would maneuver around the Democratic Party to get on the ballot shows that he has been in Washington too long.

``They get really complacent after they're in office for a while," Jackson said.

``We've got to get some new blood in there."

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, one of the nation's most visible Democrats, issued a statement yesterday saying that while she supports Lieberman in the primary, she will back Lamont if Lamont beats him.

``I have been pleased to support [Lieberman] in his campaign for reelection, and hope that he is our party's nominee," the former first lady said in the statement. ``But I want to be clear that I will support the nominee chosen by Connecticut Democrats in their primary."

Lieberman is calculating that many of the same voters he is asking to respect his position on Iraq will also respect his determination to stay in the race regardless of the primary's outcome.

``I want to make sure, after 18 years of service to all the people of the state, that I give all the people the decision in November as to whether they want me to continue to work for them," Lieberman said yesterday. ``I'm going to be there on Nov. 7 one way or the other, but I hope to be there as the Democratic nominee."

Polls show that while Lamont is gaining ground in a head-to-head matchup against Lieberman, Lieberman would probably beat Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger in a three-way general-election race, in which all the state's voters can participate.

But Lamont said the race's dynamic would shift if he beats Lieberman.

``If we win, we're going to energize Democrats who have been sitting on the sidelines for an awful long time," Lamont said. ``It's going to be a tidal wave. If Senator Lieberman leaves the party, I think Democrats are going to rally behind our campaign."

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