U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman will announce Wednesday in Stamford that he will not seek re-election to a fifth term in 2012, ending one of the most eventful and unpredictable journeys in Connecticut politics, according to an adviser apprised Tuesday of Lieberman’s plans.

Lieberman’s staff on Tuesday began inviting his shrinking circle of long-time supporters in Connecticut to a press conference to be held at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in Stamford, the city where he grew up and returned to after living for 40 years in New Haven.

One friend and adviser said the call was cryptic, leaving the strong impression he was announcing his retirement. Another said he was explicitly told by senior staff that Lieberman planned to retire after concluding that re-election as an independent was nearly impossible.

“He’s out,” the friend said.

No one knew why he would making the call now, leaving himself a lame duck for two full years in the Senate, where Lieberman has been a pivotal swing vote since his re-election as an independent in 2006.

“I don’t know why so early,” one friend said.

The timing of the decision left others outside his circle convinced Lieberman was going to run.

“I don’t see why he would pick a dreary day in January to go quietly into the night,” Republican Chris Healy said.

Lieberman’s staff declined to confirm or deny that the senator was retiring.

“It’s the $64,000 question. It leaves a little suspense for tomorrow,” said Marshal Wittmann, his spokesman.

Wittmann said Lieberman spent the holidays assessing his future.

“After many thoughtful conversations with family and friends over the past few months, Senator Lieberman made a decision about his future over the holidays which he plans to announce on Wednesday,” he said.

A senior Lieberman aide said “he’s only told close family and a few friends” about his decision and has yet to inform Senate leadership. Those calls would come before the press conference.

Lieberman debuted as a candidate in 1970 as a reliably liberal antiwar Democrat seeking a state Senate seat in New Haven, helped by a platoon of volunteers from Yale that included a young law student named Bill Clinton. Lieberman began the year as one of the most enigmatic figures in politics, a man forever prompting the question: What makes Joe tick?

It’s the question that was asked in early 2008, when he went to New Hampshire on a snowy morning to endorse Republican John McCain for president. And when he flew to St. Paul, Minn., in the summer to help open the Republican National Convention with a prime-time speech extolling McCain and undercutting Barack Obama. And again when he repeatedly threatened to scuttle the top priority of President Obama and Senate Democrats: health reform.

He managed to outrage both parties on health reform. Lieberman played a key role in scuttling the public option sought by Democrats, then ultimately helped give Obama a victory by voting for the amended bill. In fact, one adviser said the health bill crystallized his poltical dilemma: His positions had left him without a reliable base in either party.

LIeberman’s relationship with the rest of the Connecticut delegation has grown strained. Two members, U.S. Reps. Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney, were openly considering a challenge to him. By early evening Tuesday, Lieberman had not notified the delegation of his plans, sources said.

It most likely was unintentional, but Lieberman’s press conference will take attention away from a noon program Wednesday in Hartford dedicated to the career of former Sen. Christopher Dodd.

Like Dodd, Lieberman is retiring to avoid ending his career with a defeat.

Lieberman’s only general election loss came in 1980, when he lost a race for the U.S. House of Representatives. He rebounded two years later, winning election as Connecticut’s first full-time attorney general, joining the vanguard of activist state A.G.s who came to prominence during the Reagan administration.

In 1988, he unseated Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and was re-elected in 1994, 2000 and 2006.

In 2000, Lieberman achieved iconic status as Al Gore’s running mate and the first Jew on a major presidential ticket, hedging his bets by simultaneously seeking re-election in Connecticut.

But his support for the war in Iraq doomed his own bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, then jeopardized his re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2006.

Any chance Lieberman had of avoiding a challenge for the Democratic Senate nomination seemed to evaporate in November 2005, when he tried to tamp down anti-war fever with a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Our Troops Must Stay.” Ned Lamont defeated him in a Democratic primary, but Lieberman won as an independent.

He remained a registered Democrat and a member of the Democratic caucus, but his relation with the state party was non-existent.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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