Countdown to Connecticut's Primary

It's the final day of campaigning in one of the most closely watched Senate primaries in the country: Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman vs. his primary challenger, businessman Ned Lamont. The debate touches on issues from race to the war in Iraq. At the 11th hour, Lieberman is behind, but surging.

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Iraq is at the center of the political battle in this country between Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and his Democratic primary opponent, businessman Ned Lamont. Lieberman is facing a threat to his Senate seat for the first time.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, the race has come to symbolize to split in the Democratic Party over the war in Iraq.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Ragin' Cajun diner is a traditional political stop up in Hartford's African American community.

(Soundbite of chanting)

NAYLOR: At lunchtime today, the place was filled with enthusiastic campaign workers and Senator Lieberman, who - for the first time in weeks - seemed optimistic.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): You know, what more can I say but thank you. The vote tomorrow is all about the future of everybody here, your family, your children, your community, our state and our country. And believe with me that one by one, together we can make the difference and go to victory tomorrow. God bless you.

NAYLOR: The optimism comes from this morning's poll by Quinnipiac University showing Lieberman has closed the gap between him and Lamont. A week ago, Lamont had a 13 point lead. This morning it was down to six points. Lieberman told a throng of reporters in the restaurant parking lot that the narrowing of Lamont's lead was something he had felt from voters.

Senator LIEBERMAN: Maybe that last poll scared them. They wanted to send me a message. I got it. But they want to send me back to Washington to keep fighting for them and delivering for them. Because that's what I've done for 18 years.

NAYLOR: His supporters, including the Reverend Paul Ritter of the New Glory Cathedral in Hartford, say over three terms in the Senate, Lieberman has always come through. Like when he helped find funding for a housing project for AIDS victims.

Reverend PAUL RITTER (New Glory Cathedral, Hartford): It was a struggle because 10 years ago nobody wanted to admit that AIDS was here. Senator Lieberman stood with us.

NAYLOR: In the closing days of the campaign, Lieberman has taken the offensive. He's placed ads on black radio stations attacking Lamont for once belonging to an exclusive country club. Last night, he delivered a key speech painstakingly explaining his support for the war in Iraq, which he said was not at odds with being a good Democrat. Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac Poll, says that Lieberman has generated some momentum.

Mr. DOUG SCHWARTZ (Quinnipiac University): It could because he is connecting with voters that his message is getting through. But it could also be because voters are taking a second look at Ned Lamont, who they don't know really well.

NAYLOR: Still, there is clearly a lot of disenchantment with Lieberman, especially among voters like Maryanne Tyrone Smith from East Haven, who - upset with his continued support for the war - planned to vote for Lamont.

Ms. MARYANNE TYRONE SMITH (East Haven resident): Senator Lieberman keeps saying that he's for the working man. The kids who are dying in Iraq are the children of the working man. They're not rich kids. And so I think his point is just not valid. I don't think he is working for the working man anymore. He hasn't been for a long time.

NAYLOR: Lamont greeted voters early this morning at a hospital and a factory gate. In an interview he said his at one time long-shot campaign has been about offering Democrats fed up with Lieberman a choice.

Mr. NED LAMONT (Connecticut Senate candidate): Well, I really believe that George Bush has taken the country in the wrong direction and that Joe Lieberman was too reluctant to challenge him and I knew that there were an awful lot of people in Connecticut who believe that as I did. And that's why I wanted somebody to challenge Joe and we wanted somebody to stand up and challenge the Bush administration where they're wrong.

NAYLOR: Lieberman is counting on his support from organized labor to turn out Democrats, but Lamont has his enthusiasts too, bloggers and activists like Jeff Talbot. Talbot has been driving to campaign events in a black pick-up with a giant papier-mâché rendering of what in Connecticut is known simply as the kiss - that moment in the last State of the Union speech where President Bush embraced Lieberman.

Mr. JEFF TALBOT (Lamont supporter): It's really, if you will, a satire or a a 3-D political cartoon. Hopefully reminding people of just how close Senator Lieberman is to President Bush.

NAYLOR: Tomorrow's primary may turn on how Connecticut Democrats feel about that encounter, and national party leaders from both sides will be watching closely.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Meriden, Connecticut.

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