Andrew Buncombe: Result leaves Hillary Clinton with tough choice to make over Iraq

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Forget about Joe Lieberman. The wider fall-out from Connecticut is about the impact one issue will have on the next presidential election and it relates most powerfully to one woman. The issue is Iraq and the woman is Hillary Clinton.

Regardless of whether Mr Lieberman recovers from his defeat and holds his Senate seat as an independent candidate come November, events in Connecticut have underlined the strength of bitter opposition within the Democratic Party towards the war in Iraq and the danger to any politician who ignores it.

It is not a straightforward equation. Mr Lieberman did not lose simply because he had been outspoken in his support for President George Bush's policy of occupation. His challenger, Ned Lamont, while politically inexperienced, was persuasive, credible and had millions of dollars at his disposable. He also had the support of internet-based activists nationwide.

But for all Mr Lieberman's attempts to frame the contest as a debate over bipartisanship, the battle in liberal Connecticut was ultimately about a war thousands of miles away which has so far cost the lives of more than 2,500 US troops, probably more than 100,000 Iraqis and has established a deadly pit of chaos at the heart of the Middle East.

For Hillary Clinton, who will probably be the front-runner among Democratic candidates in 2008, the problem is this: how do you appear to be strong on national security while still securing the support of anti-war Democrats? If she moves left to win the anti-war vote she would be vulnerable against a Republican challenger such as John McCain, while if she remains hawkish on national security she leaves an opportunity to an anti-war candidate during the primary contest such as Russ Feingold or John Edwards. To avoid both pitfalls will require a masterly balancing act or a display of more charisma than Mrs Clinton has yet shown.

"Hillary Clinton has to look at this and work out what it means for her," said David Corn, Washington editor of the Nation magazine. "If Edwards or Feingold take on a very clear anti-war position and she waffles, it will become the defining issue of the presidential primary." Indeed a poll at the end of May by John Zogby suggested Mrs Clinton would be strongly challenged if a staunchly anti-war candidate ran against her. The poll suggested she would secure 38 per cent while an anti-war candidate would secure 32 per cent. The rest would opt for another candidate all together.

Patrick Basham, director of the Democracy Institute, a think-tank in Washington, spelt out the risk of Mrs Clinton being dragged leftwards. "A Republican candidate of the likes of McCain, with his combination of military service, foreign policy experience and hawkish voting record, will dwarf his Democratic rival in terms of their perceived national security credentials." For internet activists, Mr Lamont's win showed the power of "net-roots" campaigns - started during Howard Dean's failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004. The Daily Kos website, "home" to many Democrats who opposed Mr Lieberman, wrote: "What [the result] showed is that democracy can work. That even the most powerful, entrenched forces can be dislodged by people-power. We can make a difference, and we will."

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