Does it matter that The New York Times has endorsed anti-war challenger Ned Lamont over Senator Joe Lieberman in the August 8 Connecticut Democratic primary?

Of course it does.

No, newspaper endorsements do not swing all that many votes in and of themselves, especially in high-profile contests. But, especially when they go against a long-term incumbent like Lieberman, they help wavering voters make the leap into the opposition camp.

For Lamont, who is running slightly ahead in the polls, today’s Times endorsement comes at precisely the right moment — as the campaign enters its final stretch. And it comes in the Sunday edition of the paper, which is more closely read in Connecticut — and elsewhere — than any other.

The Times circulates widely in Connecticut, and has a long tradition of making endorsements in the state’s elections, so the newspaper’s choice was long awaited. If the Times had endorsed Lieberman, as the more Republican-friendly Hartford Courant did Sunday, then the senator’s flagging campaign might have received the boost it failed to get when former President Bill Clinton swept into the state last Monday to try and pump some life into the incumbent’s reelection bid.

The endorsement by the Times, which has backed Lieberman in most of his past races, and which is far more cautious politically than its conservative critics would have America believe, came as something of a shock to Lamont backers. Just a few weeks ago, when I interviewed a Lamont aide in Connecticut, he told me that the candidate was merely hoping for a few kind words from the paper in what was expected to be a pro-Lieberman editorial.

Instead, the Times hit Lieberman where it hurts, ridiculing the senator’s suggestion that his support of President Bush’s misguided foreign policies makes him some kind of statesman. Suggesting that the Republican White’s House’s favorite Democratic senator has a “warped version of bipartisanship,” the Times editorial explained that, by making himself an apologist for the Bush administration’s worst excesses, Lieberman “has forfeited his role as a conscience of his party and has forfeited our support.”

At the same time, the newspaper of record offered Lamont exactly what a political newcomer challenging an entrenched incumbent needs: respect from a known quantity. The editors of the Times referred to Lamont as a “smart and moderate” candidate who “showed spine in challenging the senator while other Democrats groused privately.”

The Times editorial closed by giving Connecticut Democrats who might not be sure about jettisoning the man their party nominated for vice president in 2000 a compelling case for doing so. “[This] primary is not about Mr. Lieberman’s legislative record. Instead it has become a referendum on his warped version of bipartisanship, in which the never-ending war on terror becomes an excuse for silence and inaction,” the editors explain, before concluding that, on the basis of this choice, “We endorse Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary for Senate in Connecticut.”