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Friday, May 19, 2006

Lamont Forces Lieberman to Face-off in Primary

Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman was nominated for a fourth term by state Democrats Friday night, but his anti-war challenger garnered enough delegates to force a primary in August.

Backers of Ned Lamont, a Greenwich businessman who has sharply criticized the moderate senator for his support of the war in Iraq, shouted with delight after learning their candidate will be the first to challenge Lieberman to a primary.

Lieberman won 1,004 of the 1,509 votes cast at the state convention, while Lamont won 505. Lamont captured 33 percent of the delegates, well more than the 15 percent he needed to force the primary.

Sean Smith, Lieberman's campaign manager, downplayed Lamont's delegate support. He said Friday's vote showed that Democrats in Connecticut still back the veteran senator, despite his support of the war.

"I think we're moving into friendlier territory," Smith said of the Aug. 8 primary. "There are 600,000 Democrats who are going to be heard from before this is over."

Lieberman worked Friday night to fend off Lamont's challenge, reminding convention delegates that he stands for more than his support for the war. He held a barbecue for delegates in the parking lot of the Connecticut Expo Center to smooth things over.

Lieberman said he has called hundreds of delegates in recent weeks, talking about the environment, his support of the U.S. Submarine Base in Groton, education and other issues.

"I'm a proud Democrat and I'm going to carry the battle forward," said Lieberman, who had to leave the convention early to observe the Jewish sabbath.

Lamont said he believes the level of support he received at the convention will send a message to Washington that people are fed up with the war.

"They are saying this war was a mistake and bring the troops home," he said. "I think 33 percent of the people in the convention are telling people in Connecticut and Washington they want a change."

Lamont is from an old-money Connecticut family with strong Wall Street ties. He founded his own telecommunications firm, Lamont Digital Systems, in 1984.

Earlier this week, Lamont's campaign manager, Tom Swan, said Lamont's family fortune stands somewhere between $90 million and $300 million, according to a new financial disclosure report.

Lieberman captured the bulk of the delegates in larger cities, such as Hartford and his hometown of New Haven. He lost to Lamont in small towns such as East Granby and Eastford. Lamont had particular success in eastern Connecticut.

The state Democratic convention was to continue Saturday, when delegates will be asked to endorse candidates for governor, attorney general, secretary of the state, treasurer and comptroller.

There is a close battle between New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy for the gubernatorial nod.

Malloy campaign officials appeared more optimistic after learning their delegates in Hartford would not be challenged. There has been a local battle over whether the delegates - the bulk of whom support Malloy - were properly selected.

The bitterness toward Lieberman and his support of the war was evident Friday night. About 60 peace activists protested outside the Expo Center. And some Lamont supporters loudly chanted "Go Home Joe" when U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., nominated Lieberman. Dodd acknowledged the discontent, saying he appreciates people who speak up about issues.

"Unlike the other party, we don't try to stifle those differences. We honor and respect them," Dodd said.

Dodd, his voice hoarse, reminded Democrats of Lieberman's longtime dedication to Connecticut and his support of key issues such as the environment and working to protect the U.S. Submarine Base in Groton from the military's closure plans.

But Lamont supporters said they believe Lieberman has forgotten his roots.

"Lieberman has just deserted the causes that I think make the party strong," said delegate Rona Cohen of New Britain.

Max Medina, a Bridgeport attorney who helped persuade Lamont to run for the Senate, said voting against Lieberman would send a message to the country.

"Our fight for a more just and humane America begins tonight, with you and me. In this place, at this time, you and I have the power to send a message to America, including George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld," he said.

Before the convention, Lieberman said he believes Lamont will hurt other party hopefuls if he continues his battle for the Senate seat.

"I think it's going to be harmful of our party and the chances of our congressional candidates, our Democratic challengers and our gubernatorial candidates," he said. "But it's his decision."

Lamont said there was no reason to pull out of the race.

"Everywhere I go, no one is saying, 'Oh my God, you're hurting the party,"' he said.

State Rep. Tim O'Brien, D-New Britain, a Lamont supporter, said he believes the Democratic primary is fueling interest in all Democratic candidates this election season.

"This is a race about the heart and soul of the party," he said.