CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican John McCain on Monday won the endorsement of independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, as he tries to mount a comeback in his presidential bid.
McCain, an Arizona senator, and Lieberman made the announcement in New Hampshire, where independent voters could be pivotal in deciding the state’s January 8 primary vote.
Both men support the Iraq war, an issue that has split public opinion as candidates seek their party’s nomination in looming state-by-state primary votes to run in the November 2008 presidential election.
“I’ve got to convince the independent voters who might be tending towards voting in the Democratic primary that it’s far more important for them to vote for me,” McCain told reporters.
Independent voters in New Hampshire make up about 45 percent of the state’s electorate and are free to cast ballots for Republican or Democratic contenders.
“Obviously that can have a dramatic and significant effect on the outcome of the New Hampshire primary,” McCain said.
The move by Lieberman of nearby Connecticut, who is still close to the Democratic Party despite switching to independent status in 2006, was an endorsement of some of McCain’s more moderate views.
While Lieberman’s backing could help McCain with independents, it might remind conservatives who represent the Republican base of why they have doubts about him.
In New Hampshire, McCain hopes to pull off a repeat of his 2000 victory in the state’s primary vote.
“I happen to think this guy is the best of all candidates to unite our country across political lines so we can begin to solve some of the problems people have,” Lieberman said. “I‘m certainly sending a message that I agree with John McCain a lot more on national security, foreign and defense policy.”
Lieberman won re-election to the Senate as an independent in 2006 after he lost a Democratic primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont.
Lieberman, Democrat Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, generally votes with the Senate’s majority Democrats but has become a source of anger for party activists upset with his support for the war.
McCain is a staunch supporter of President George W. Bush’s strategy of raising troop levels in Iraq. He said Lieberman’s endorsement symbolized the desire among voters for a new bipartisan mood in American politics.
“We have become badly polarized,” he said. “We must come together as a nation -- Republicans, independents and Democrats.”
Many conservatives abandoned McCain earlier this year because of his support for now-dead legislation that would have allowed an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States to gain a pathway to citizenship.
At the time he seemed a shoe-in to win his party’s nomination but now he is scrambling to gain ground.
McCain is counting on a win in New Hampshire to propel him into later races. He has been rising in polls in New Hampshire, with a Concord Monitor survey last week showing him in a virtual second-place tie with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, behind Romney the former Massachusetts governor.
It is the latest in a series of high-profile endorsements for McCain, who won the backing on Sunday of the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, and the Boston Globe, which also circulates in southern New Hampshire.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)
Additional reporting by John Whitesides and David Morgan; Writing by Steve Holland, editing by John O'Callaghan