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Lieberman Loses to Lamont in Connecticut Primary


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Voters in five states went to the polls in primary elections yesterday. By far the most-watched race was the battle in Connecticut between Senator Joseph Lieberman and his challenger, anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. Ned Lamont beat the three-term senator, highlighting the Democratic Party's struggle over what to do about the war in Iraq. This morning, Joseph Lieberman's campaign filed papers so that he could run as an independent in the general election, a move threatens to further split the party. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Standing on the podium in the hotel ballroom, flakes of confetti in his hair, Ned Lamont hardly looked the role of giant slayer.

NED LAMONT: They call Connecticut the land of steady habits. Tonight we voted for a big change.


NAYLOR: Lamont pulled off something few would have predicted when he announced his challenge to Lieberman eight months ago. But Connecticut Democrats were ripe for his message that Lieberman ventured too far to the right on issues like Iraq and cozying up to President Bush. The president's embrace of Lieberman in last January's State of the Union address was parodied at campaign events. But despite winning the nomination, and with only token Republican opposition, Lamont won't have an easy path to the Senate. That's because last night Lieberman said he would remain in the race, running now as an independent.

JOE LIEBERMAN: We've just finished the first half, and the Lamont team is ahead. But in the second half, our team - team Connecticut is going to surge forward to victory in November.


NAYLOR: Lieberman, who just six years ago was his party's vice-presidential nominee, ran a campaign that analysts said was slow to take Lamont seriously. It wasn't until last Sunday that Lieberman offered a detailed explanation for his support for the war - too late to change the trend favoring Lamont that had been apparent in polls for the last few weeks. Lieberman accused Lamont of engaging in the politics of polarization, but the senator himself sounded anything but forgiving last night.

LIEBERMAN: I expect that my opponent will continue to do in the general election what he has done in the primary: partisan polarizing instead of talking about how we could solve the people's problems - insults instead of ideas.

NAYLOR: At his victory celebration, Lamont was flanked by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and California Congresswoman Maxine Waters - all of whom campaigned hard for him in the state's African-American communities. Lamont got his biggest response when he returned to the issue of Iraq.

LAMONT: We have 132,000 of our bravest troops stuck in the middle of a bloody civil war in Iraq, and I'd say it's high time we bring them home to the hero's welcome.


CROWD: Bring them home, bring them home...

NAYLOR: At polling places in schools and civic buildings across the state yesterday, flags were being flown at half-staff, mourning the loss of a marine from a Connecticut guard unit killed in Fallujah. It was the war that Lamont supporters like Richard Naylor of Middletown cited time and again.

RICHARD NAYLOR: I was against it a year before it started, and I think there has to be a price to pay for anyone who supported it. So I voted against Lieberman.

NAYLOR: The nomination in hand, Lamont now must try to unify the state's Democrats behind his candidacy. Flushed with his success, Lamont sounded optimistic.

LAMONT: I feel pretty confident the Democratic Party is going to rally behind the winner of this primary. They're going to rally behind my candidacy, and we're going to go forward united.

NAYLOR: But some party regulars - disheartened by Lieberman's loss and unconvinced by Lamont - say they'll stick with the three-term incumbent. Bill Finch is a Democratic state senator from Bridgeport.

BILL FINCH: It's a myth that Joe is not a Democrat. Granted, he's had some bad symbolic votes in my opinion. But I don't throw a friend away who has been a friend to Connecticut for most of his adult life - all of my adult life - because of a few symbolic votes.

NAYLOR: Still, this was a moment to savor for Lamont supporters, especially those opposed to the war in Iraq. It's a new feeling, said one happy Lamont backer - winning for a change. The question is whether that feeling will still be there in November.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Meriden, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.