Pro-war Lieberman in desperate bid for votes

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The war in Iraq could become the key issue for Democratic candidates seeking the presidency in 2008, experts predicted yesterday, as a long-time supporter of the occupation was fighting for his political life.

Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democrats' most senior and outspoken supporter of President George Bush's Iraq policy, was involved in a down-to-the wire contest in his home state of Connecticut against the Democratic challenger Ned Lamont. Voters went to the ballots yesterday with polls giving Mr Lamont, a cable television entrepreneur and political newcomer, a six-point advantage over Mr Lieberman, though the gap was narrowing.

Mr Lieberman, a three-time incumbent and former Democratic vice-presidential candidate, has been campaigning furiously and has cut Mr Lamont's lead by seven points in recent days. Some commentators believe Mr Lieberman might do enough to secure the primary, opening the way for him to again be his party's candidate in November's congressional contest.

But whether Mr Lieberman wins or loses, experts said party activists had delivered the clearest of messages to candidates that they were opposed to the war and were opposed to offering any support for Mr Bush's policy in Iraq.

Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said: "If he loses, clearly the message sent by activists in the blue states is that Iraq will be a fundamental divide in the primaries of 2008 ... If he wins I'm not sure the message is that different."

Senator Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be a front-runner, last week called for the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to resign - a move seemingly at odds with the hawkish comments she has been making about Iraq over the past 18 months.

"The other [candidates] will find some way to get the message out that they are opposed to Iraq," Mr Sabato added.

Mr Lieberman made a series of appearances across the state to appeal to voters as they went to the polls. He told the Associated Press that voters who were upset with him were "trying to send me a message". He added: "I got their message. I think they want to send me back to Washington to continue working with them, fighting for them, and delivering for Connecticut."