A wry grin on his face, Sen. Joe Lieberman stepped into the brilliant fall sunshine after a Baptist church service and declared his plans for the campaign's final days.

"Actually, I'm planning to go into hibernation," he joked to reporters. "I'm going to be in prayer for the next nine days."

Lieberman has plenty to smile about these days.

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Less than a week before Tuesday's elections, Lieberman, 64, appears to be on-track for a fourth term as statewide polls show him with a double-digit lead.

Just three months ago, the Connecticut lawmaker's 18-year Senate career was on the rocks.

Anti-war challenger Ned Lamont had flattened him in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, a bitter race that was widely seen as a referendum on Iraq — and a blunt rejection of Lieberman's pro-war views.

It was a dramatic fall from grace for a man who had been his party's vice presidential nominee just six years ago and who came within a few hundred votes of the White House. Lieberman sometimes cites a bittersweet Bob Dylan tune, "Simple Twist of Fate," in recalling the loss.

A defiant Lieberman quickly shifted gears and launched an independent bid to hang onto his seat, bucking top Democrats who urged him to bow out for the sake of party loyalty. Some even branded him a traitor.

He's bounced back with a hard-hitting campaign that has yanked the spotlight off the issue that cost him the primary — his support for President Bush's Iraq invasion.

"I will believe that, if this works out and I win, it is because people wanted me to be their senator for a lot more reasons than Iraq," Lieberman said, noting that voters often approach him to say while they disagree with him on the war, they still support him.

He has struck a chord among Republicans and the state's vast pool of independents, calling himself an "independent-minded Democrat" willing to resist the party line.

He has framed the race as a choice between an experienced senator able to work across party lines to deliver for Connecticut and "Negative Ned," a partisan political newcomer running on a single issue, the war.

"Lieberman has done a good job of defining Lamont for voters," said Gary Rose, a politics professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

Lamont is a wealthy businessman whose previous political experience is limited to local posts in Greenwich. He has pumped $15.7 million of his own money into the race, including a $2 million loan last week.

Lieberman climbed back by winning the political center, particularly independents, the largest voting bloc in a Democratic-leaning state where the war and Bush are unpopular.

"The independent turnout is what's really important for Lieberman," said Quinnipiac University Poll director Doug Schwartz.

Lieberman has done a masterful job of distancing himself from his pro-war views by stressing his independence from Bush and the Democrats while calling for a bipartisan approach to Iraq, said University of Connecticut public policy professor Ken Dautrich.

"He's taken a negative and turned it into a positive," said Dautrich.

At the same time, Lieberman has run TV ads questioning Lamont's business background. One of his most effective commercials trumpeted what he did to help save the submarine base in Groton.

Steve Grzesczyk, a Republican who works as an office manager, was among those at a recent Lieberman appearance at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Southington.

"I'm sticking with Joe," Grzesczyk said. "His tenure there in Washington helps the state of Connecticut."

Lamont's campaign got off to a slow start after the primary amid hopes Lieberman would drop out. Efforts to broaden his message have mostly fallen flat, and he has returned to his signature issue, the war, as the race closes.

Lieberman, meanwhile, has won support from the White House and other top Republicans.

Bush praised him this week for standing firm on Iraq. Prominent Republicans like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have also chipped in with endorsements, fundraising help and the loan of some key political operatives.

The GOP has largely snubbed its long-shot nominee Alan Schlesinger, whose gambling background generated unflattering headlines earlier this year. He trails in single digits in the polls.

Despite his ties to Republicans, Senate Democrats are likely to need Lieberman's vote in a closely divided upper chamber. They say they will welcome him back to their ranks, though there are still some bruised feelings.

Lieberman has pledged to caucus with the Democrats. And if the party can gain six seats next Tuesday, he would be in line to become chairman of the Senate Homeland Security panel, a powerful committee dealing with the issue of terrorism.

It's a point he has brought up with voters in recent days.

"People are reading," he said. "They see that there's a chance that Democrats might control and they know that if that happens, that I would be a committee chair and also would be in the majority."

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