Connecticut Senator Joe “I am a loyal Democrat” Lieberman’s announcement that he will run for reelection as an “unaffiliated” independent if primary voters reject him August 8 has forced his fellow Democratic senators to decide whether they are more loyal to Lieberman or their party.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, have sent strong pro-Lieberman signals. They’re definitely backing him in the August 8 primary against anti-war challenger Ned Lamont, and Schumer has hinted that he might back Lieberman as an independent if Lamont is the Democratic nominee.

On the other end of the spectrum is Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who has shied away from endorsing Lieberman and recently said on the NBC News show “Meet the Press” that he would “support the Democratic nominee, whoever that is.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the Democratic senator who has come closest to echoing Feingold’s stand is New York Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton is backing Lieberman in the primary, she won’t back him if he runs as an independent.

“I’ve known Joe Lieberman for more than 30 years. I have been pleased to support him in his campaign for reelection, and hope that he is our party’s nominee,” declared Clinton in a statement issued after Lieberman indicated that he will not honor the sentiments of Connecticut Democrats if they reject him.

“But,” she added, “I want to be clear that I will support the nominee chosen by Connecticut Democrats in their primary,” Clinton added. “I believe in the Democratic Party, and I believe we must honor the decisions made by Democratic primary voters.”

Clinton is actually closer to Lieberman on the question of when U.S. forces should withdraw from Iraq — the issue that led to the Lamont challenge after Lieberman emerged as the loudest Democratic support of the occupation in particular and Bush administration foreign policies in general.

But Clinton’s politically smart. As a potential 2008 presidential candidate, she recognizes that needs to keep on good terms with the party’s base. That base is overwhelmingly anti-war, a fact confirmed by the unexpected strength of the Lamont challenge to Lieberman.

So Clinton’s banging the party-loyalty drum — loudly — saying that even if it means letting Lieberman loose, “The challenges before us in 2006 call for a strong, united party, in which we all support and work for the candidates who are selected in the Democratic process.”

That does not mean, however, that Clinton is will get a pass for her position on the war. She is expected to face an anti-war challenge in the September New York state Democratic primary, from labor activist Jonathan Tasini. Tasini’s campaign is completing the process of gathering signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

With her statement on the Lieberman contest, Clinton sends signals as regards the New York contest and the 2008 presidential race.

Clinton is trying hard to maintain a position that is at least close to the middle of the Democratic Party.

That’s the ground Lieberman abandoned altogether when he strongly endorsed the continued occupation of Iraq and refused to join most other Democrats — including Clinton — in supporting a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.