FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was strolling a leafy sidewalk in this shoreline suburb the other day, campaigning for votes, when the driver of a Toyota Prius spied him.
"Stop the war!" she shouted, leaning on the horn. "Bring the troops home! No more war!"
Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, is fighting for survival in what could be this year's most important contest. His candidacy has become a symbol of an unpopular war, of Washington's complacency and -- perhaps most significantly -- of a national party that may be on the verge of a transformation, with repercussions that could extend into the 2008 presidential race.
The Connecticut senator is in an increasingly uphill battle against a primary challenger, Ned Lamont, whose anti-war candidacy has sparked a level of excitement among liberal activists unmatched since Howard Dean's 2004 presidential try. It's also raised the anxiety level of Democrats concerned about a divisive, and damaging, intraparty struggle if Lieberman loses.
Lamont campaign signs have been spotted as far away as Washington, D.C., and his appearance on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report this week was described archly by the host, Stephen Colbert, as an interview with the man who is "destroying the Democratic Party."
A public opinion poll, released yesterday by Quinnipiac University, showed Lieberman 13 percentage points behind a surging Lamont. Two months ago, Lieberman led by 15 in the same poll.
In a state where President Bush's poll ratings are among the lowest in the nation, Lieberman, a centrist Democrat, has been stung by Lamont's charge that he is Bush's "enabler."
But the senator, unapologetic, said he wouldn't change stances he's taken, including his support for the war in Iraq, that have alienated former supporters. He is threatening to run as an independent in November if he loses the primary.
The latest poll found that two out of three Lamont supporters say their votes are mainly against Lieberman. Even close friends suggest the senator has only himself to blame.
"You know that statement 'You make your own bed?,'" said state AFL-CIO head John Olsen, among Lieberman's staunchest backers. "Joe's in a sickbed, and we've got to get him out."
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, joining a phalanx of Democrats on a rescue mission for their colleague, said this week that it was his "sense" that Lieberman "has learned his lesson" and would take "a different view and perspective" if he won a fourth six-year term.
Lieberman, in an interview, denied that. He said another Lautenberg comment -- that Lieberman doesn't want to "backtrack on the things he said" because "Joe doesn't want to look like he's pandering" -- isn't true either.
"There are always moments when you wish something might have come out of your mouth better," he said. "But in terms of the substances of the positions that I've taken? No."
The primary is Tuesday, six years to the day from the apex of Lieberman's career: his introduction to the nation as Al Gore's running mate, making him the first Jewish-American on a major party ticket. Today, Gore, along with 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and some other leading Democrats, have declined to endorse him; others, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, are backing Lieberman in the primary but not if he runs as an independent.
Lieberman's re-election is seen as a referendum on Iraq, an issue that has divided Democrats. His defeat would be a danger sign for other incumbents, especially those who have supported the war and sided with Bush.
A Lieberman loss would be a major victory for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, putting new pressure on those Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2003 and have increasingly become targets of anti-war groups.
Likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was booed at a liberal gathering two months ago for refusing to endorse a date for a U.S troop withdrawal. Clinton, unlike other '08 hopefuls, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, did not campaign for Lieberman, though her husband, the former president, did.
Lamont, a wealthy heir and cable TV entrepreneur, has poured millions into his own campaign, but he has also drawn support from online activists and groups such as MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, the successor to Dean's presidential campaign. Liberal stalwarts, including Rep. Maxine Waters of California and the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton, have campaigned with Lamont in recent days.
If the Democratic left ousts Lieberman, one of the party's most prominent centrists, it could be a significant setback for the party's candidates in other parts of the country, especially the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountain States, where national security has traditionally been a pivotal issue. The danger: reviving perceptions of the Democrats as the anti-war party, which would make it more difficult to attract the moderates and conservatives whose votes could decide close House and Senate contests this fall.
The weak-on-defense image might also play into White House strategist Karl Rove's stated desire to make fighting terrorism an election focus again this year. Rove has said that Democrats have a "pre-9/11 view" of the world and can't be trusted to defend the country.
That clearly worries Democratic leaders, including some liberals.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who voted against the Iraq war authorization, warned during a campaign visit for Lieberman of the danger that Democrats would become "a one-issue party." Labor official Olsen, a former state Democratic chairman, said that a Lieberman defeat "will drive a wedge through the party" in Washington.
For his part, Lieberman says that were it not for anti-war fever, he wouldn't be facing repudiation by fellow Democrats.
"But the part that really is unfair, and I think a mistake, is for somebody to vote against me in the primary to send a message to George Bush. Because on almost every other major initiative of his administration, I stood up and fought him," he said, as his campaign bus, touring the state in a last-minute effort to generate support, headed up I-95.
Interviews with Connecticut voters suggest the war isn't Lieberman's only problem. Some said he's lost touch with the state. Others are fed up with a national party establishment that has not challenged Bush on a range of issues.
Andy Ross, 48, of New Haven, who voted for Bush and thinks the president "did what he had to do" in Iraq, said Lieberman "has been in there a long time [and] has got a very cocky attitude." The Lamont supporter said it's time for "some fresh blood" in Washington.
Paul McCarthy, 38, a registered Democrat from Fairfield, said his problem with Lieberman "is not just about Iraq. It's more than that. It's the failure to hold the administration responsible" for the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and other failures.
Bob Arnold, 53, a moderate Republican from Greenwich, calls Lieberman " a very decent guy, a very sound guy."
"The problem for him is the left side of the party," he said. "There's not much room for a middle-of-the-roader. Everything is so polarized."
The senator has been described in news reports as hurt and depressed by his latest troubles, which add personal insult to the damage his reputation suffered during a 2004 presidential run. But if those reports are true, he doesn't show it.
"I don't want to kid you. As I joke with people sometimes, about once a day the memory of 2000 comes up to about my throat and I push it back," he said, chuckling. That loss "will forever, you know, gnaw at me."
After 2004, the anger being directed at him "doesn't come as a shock." Still, "it bothers me," he acknowledged. "I don't read the blogs where the worst of this stuff is."
Lieberman's campaign has been collecting signatures on petitions that must be filed by Wednesday to place his name on the ballot as an independent.
Critics see it as another example of the senator placing his own interests first. In 2000, he refused to quit the Senate race, even though a Gore-Lieberman victory would have let the state's Republican governor pick a Republican to replace him.
Some Democrats speculate that Lieberman may not follow through with an independent candidacy, particularly if the primary isn't close. Recent polling has suggested, however, that he could win a three-way race, thanks to support from independents and Republicans.
Lieberman promises to ally with Senate Democrats if he's re-elected as an independent, but running against the primary winner would only widen Democratic divisions.
"I'm creating an option which I hope I don't have to use," he said. "I believe that if I continue as a petitioning Democrat, I will be doing it for the Democratic Party, not just for me. ... But ultimately, that's not up to me. That's up to the voters. I want to give them the last word."