By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/4/2006 10:15:59 AM ET 2006-08-04T14:15:59

If Sen. Joe Lieberman loses next Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut, will his political obituary read “another casualty of the Iraq war”?

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Lieberman’s support for the war – combined with the millions of dollars spent by Lieberman’s wealthy anti-war challenger, Ned Lamont, have brought Lieberman to the brink, either of a defeat, or of a startling comeback victory, or of a new life as an independent candidate who’ll compete in November in a three-way race against Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger.

As Lieberman campaigned Wednesday and Thursday, there was the palpable feeling that these could be the final hours of his 37-year career as a Democratic candidate.

His new career as an independent Democratic candidate may begin first thing Wednesday morning, if Lamont pulls off a win that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago.

Lieberman is gathering the signatures that will allow his name to be on the November ballot regardless of how the primary turns out.

At a rally Wednesday evening at the Mount Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church in New Haven, Lamont ally Jesse Jackson denounced Lieberman’s fall-back plan to run as an independent.

“He should play by the rules! Play by the rules!” Jackson intoned in his trademark style as the crowd chanted along with him.

Jackson was hammering at that theme again Thursday morning at a senior citizens’ center in Hartford, getting the crowd of about 200 to repeat in unison after him: “Those who play by primary rules should accept primary results!”

Jackson told the crowd that they must not “support the Iraq war and support Bush and Lieberman,” but must instead “choose to end the war” by electing Lamont, whom he predicted “will be your next U.S. senator.”

Lamont himself told the crowd that next Tuesday’s primary is a choice: “Do we want to keep fighting in Iraq or do we want to start bringing the troops home?”

In a Quinnipiac poll of likely primary voters released Thursday, Lamont garnered 54 percent to Lieberman’s 41 percent. Two months ago the numbers were almost exactly inverted, favoring Lieberman.

Lamont supporters are touting the notion that with a big enough Lieberman loss on Tuesday -- if Lamont gets 60 percent of the vote, for instance -- the senator will be forced to yield to pressure from party leaders and drop his independent bid.

An independent streak
There was no indication of this from Lieberman, who soldiered on at a series of campaign stops across the state. Longtime Lieberman friend and advisor Lanny Davis – while saying the Iraq war “is a legitimate issue for Mr. Lamont to run on” – said Lamont and his campaign manager “were engaging in wishful thinking” and “drinking their own Kool-Aid” if they think Lieberman will drop his independent bid.

To a samba class at the Milford senior center, Lieberman said Lamont was “trying to make this a vote on one issue, Iraq, which is an important issue which we can have a difference of opinion on, but trust me, I’m working real hard to see if we can bring it to successful end as quickly as possible.”

He added that Lamont was also “making it a referendum on George Bush. Take a look at me. I’m not George Bush. As a matter of fact, I’ve voted against most of what he’s trying to do.”

But if Lieberman loses on Tuesday, plenty of Republicans and independents will vote for him in November, said a Republican ex-state legislator Mae Schmidle in Newtown, Conn. where she showed up at the Lieberman event Wednesday.

Schmidle has known Lieberman since the early 1980s.

“I find an awful lot of Republicans in Newtown that feel very strongly about supporting him,” Schmidle said. “They’re talking to Democrats and telling them ‘this is a particularly fine candidate.’ I think he could very well pull out this primary.”

If not, there’s the November election. “He’s got a three-way race hands down. He’s got the name recognition. He can go to two dozen different places in Connecticut, and say, ‘I supported this (project), I was the one who originally thought of it,’” Schmidle said.

Who do the numbers favor?
The voter registration numbers would seem to be on Lieberman’s side, if he attracts support in November from Republicans such as Schmidle.

There are a total of about 1.3 million active Republican and independent voters in Connecticut, twice as many as the number of Democratic voters.

(But will Republicans be willing to overlook Lieberman’s liberal views on the environment, abortion and gay rights?)

The prospect of a Lamont victory Tuesday causes acute pains for pro-Lieberman liberal Democrats such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who represents New Haven.

“Joe knew my dad and knows my mother very well,” DeLauro told me Wednesday as she, Lamont, and Lieberman appeared at an anti-Wal Mart rally in Bridgeport. “I knew his mom very well. She was an indomitable woman. For me it’s both a personal and professional friendship.”

Asked whether she’d support the winner of Tuesday’s primary, DeLauro said, “I will not speculate on the outcome of that primary.”

The dilemma facing DeLauro could be faced as well by two more famous Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton and her husband.

If Lamont is their party’s nominee, how could the Clintons reject his plea for them to come to Connecticut and campaign with him?

Bill Clinton has endorsed Lieberman and campaigned with him last week; Hillary Clinton’s fund-raising committee has given money to Lieberman. (Lamont himself donated $500 to the Lieberman campaign last year.)

“I do believe that some of the senators you mentioned (i.e, Clinton) are going to come on board and support the winner and I hope that winner is Ned Lamont,” Lamont told me Thursday.

The two candidates continued exchanging fire as the campaign headed into its last few days.

Lieberman said that Lamont was wrong to say in his new TV ad that American soldiers were being “shipped off to war,” since the soldiers in fact volunteered to serve.

Lieberman is coping not just with the formal Lamont campaign but with a brigade of bloggers and activists. At each of his campaign stops Lieberman is shadowed by single-minded critics such as Keith Crane who toted a sign reading “Phony diner tours are no substitute for genuine public debate,” as Lieberman stopped at a diner in Wallingford Wednesday.

“In the last six years, he’s basically become a Republican apologist, a lapdog for George W Bush,” Crane complained.

Another disenchanted Democrat is Cynthia James of Windsor, who opposes the Iraq war and has voted for Lieberman in the past.

“For years I thought he represented the people of Connecticut until he voiced his opinions and I started looking at his voting record. I’ve come to realize that he no longer represents what I represent.”

This weekend, James will be making phone calls to help get out voters for Lamont.

On Friday morning with dark clouds looming over downtown Hartford and a hail storm about to start, Lieberman gathered hard-hatted laborers around him as he appealed for union votes at the construction site of the city’s new science center.

“This is crunch time,” said Charlie LeConche, president of the Hartford/New Britain building trades union. “This is about taking care of our friends like Joe Lieberman who has fought the fight for organized labor and for working people on the state of Connecticut.”

LeConche said the building trades unions had 55,000 members in the state and some of them will be phone-banking and giving voters rides to the polls for Lieberman next Tuesday.

“Unions, especially the building trades, have never forgotten their friends,” he added, telling reporters that his union would support Lieberman as an independent. “We don’t care how he gets there. We want to get him there,” LeConche said.

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