HARTFORD, Conn. - Top Democrats on Capitol Hill abandoned Sen. Joe Lieberman one by one Wednesday and threw their support to Ned Lamont, the anti-war challenger who defeated him in the primary.
But Lieberman said his conscience demands that he run as an independent in November.
"I think it would be irresponsible and inconsistent with my principles if I were to just walk off the field," Lieberman said in an interview with The Associated Press a day after his loss to the political newcomer in a race that was considered an early referendum on the Iraq war.
Top Senate Democrats, including John Kerry and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Harry Reid of Nevada, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York, said they supported Lamont as the duly elected choice of Connecticut's Democratic voters.
Reid and Schumer - the party's Senate leader, and the head of the Democratic Senate campaign committee - said: "The perception was that (Lieberman) was too close to George Bush and this was, in many respects, a referendum on the president more than anything else. The results bode well for Democratic victories in November and our efforts to take the country in a new direction."
Kennedy called Lamont's victory "a clarion call for change," and a spokeswoman said Kennedy planned to campaign for the nominee.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated her pledge to back the winner of the primary. She stopped short of calling on Lieberman to quit the race but urged the senator to "search his conscience and decide what is best for Connecticut and for the Democratic Party."
Lamont raised no public complaint about Lieberman's plan to run as an independent, and predicted he would win in November even with Lieberman on the ballot. "He'll end up splitting the Republican vote," Lamont told CNN. "He gets a lot more support from Republicans than he does from Democrats."
Lieberman showed no signs of backing down, even though the Democrats' withdrawal of support also means he will be starved of money from party sources to again take on the millionaire Lamont.
"The bottom line is that I'm definitely in," said the 64-year-old three-term senator and former vice presidential nominee. "While I consider myself a devoted Democrat, I am even more devoted to my state and my country."
The final returns from Tuesday's primary showed Lamont defeating Lieberman 52 percent to 48 percent.
On Wednesday, as expected, the Lieberman campaign delivered two boxes of petitions to the Connecticut secretary of state's office, and aides said they contained more than enough signatures to qualify him for the November ballot.
The move would set up a three-way race this fall among Lamont, Lieberman and Republican Alan Schlesinger, who has trailed far behind both Democrats in recent polls.
Lieberman said he was not bothered by losing the support of his Democratic colleagues, noting he lost the primary even with their backing. "In the end, the people make up their own minds, and this is going to be a people's campaign," he said.
The defeat put Lieberman in the familiar role of a go-it-alone politician. He was the first prominent Democrat to openly criticize President Clinton's conduct with Monica Lewinksy. His support for the Iraq war and his defense of President Bush also have made him unpopular with members of his own party and gave Lamont a powerful platform on which to run.
Lieberman's name recognition and moderate politics will draw strong support from independents and Republicans in November, according to Kenneth Dautrich, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut.
"I think Lieberman is now in the driver's seat," Dautrich said, adding that the senator could have "a fairly handy lead" as the campaign begins.
One of the biggest challenges will be fundraising, Dautrich noted. Lamont is a cable TV entrepreneur who put $4 million of his own fortune into the primary. As the Democrats' nominee, he also will get donations from traditional Democratic sources that might otherwise have contributed to Lieberman.
At a Democratic unity rally Wednesday morning, Lamont grinned broadly as he took his place with his new Democratic colleagues - most of whom had originally endorsed Lieberman and campaigned for him.
"Nancy, I got to tell you," he told party chairwoman Nancy DiNardo, "I like being on your team."
Lieberman said he fired his campaign manager and spokesman, and asked for the resignations of his campaign staff.
"We did not answer, adequately answer, the distortions of my record on Iraq and my relationship with George Bush, that the Lamont campaign put out," the senator said, though he insisted he was not blaming campaign workers.
Republicans seized on the results to paint Democrats as careless with the country's security.
Vice President Dick Cheney said the race showed there is a significant segment of the Democratic Party that wants to return to "a pre-9/11 mindset."
"It's an unfortunate development, I think, from the standpoint of the Democratic Party to see a man like Lieberman pushed aside because of his willingness to support an aggressive posture in terms of our national security strategy," Cheney said from Jackson, Wyo.
"When we see the Democratic Party reject one of its own - a man they selected to be their vice presidential nominee just a few short years ago - that would seem to say a lot about the state the party's in today," he said.
Lieberman's 10,000-vote loss sent shockwaves through the local and national Democratic party. It was Lieberman's first loss in a Connecticut campaign since 1980, and he has long been one of Connecticut's most popular Democrats. He became just the fourth Senate incumbent since 1980 to lose a primary.
Lamont won by hammering away at Lieberman's support for the Iraq war and accusing him of being too close to Bush, as evidenced by an incident in which Bush appeared to plant a kiss on the senator's cheek after his 2005 State of the Union address.
Lamont's campaign also was embraced by liberal bloggers, who saw it as a chance to take down an incumbent and play a bigger role in the Democratic Party.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in July showed that 51 percent of likely voters would support Lieberman in a three-way race, versus 27 percent for Lamont and 9 percent for Schlesinger, a lawyer who was formerly a legislator and mayor. However, a CBS News/New York Times exit poll of nearly 2,700 voters on Tuesday found that 61 percent said Lieberman should not run as an independent.
Though having both Lieberman and Lamont on the ballot could split the Democratic vote, Schlesinger is not considered a major threat. His campaign stumbled in July after it was learned that he used a fake name to gamble at a Connecticut casino and had been sued over gambling debts at two New Jersey casinos. Republican Gov. M Jodi Rell urged him to drop out of the Senate race, but Schlesinger called the gambling a "non-issue" and vowed to stay in.