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Center, but not front: Lieberman's quandary

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"Lieberman's problem is one of expectations," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "As the vice presidential nominee in 2000, he should have been the clear front-runner from the start. But he just isn't selling this year. Democratic activists want a strong anti-Bush nominee; they want a nominee that preaches old-time religion, and that's not Lieberman."

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Lieberman not only believes in the American dream; he says he's lived it on his journey from a middle-class neighborhood in Stamford, Conn., to the road to the White House.

Raised with his parents in the deeply religious, Orthodox home of his maternal grandmother, he was the adored eldest son. (A high school flame says that when he came down the stairs in the morning, his mother believed "God came down, too.") From an early age, he was inculcated with the Jewish ethic of tikkun olam - service to others as service to God. That helped him flourish. He was class president, prom king, a popular date. But he was also a dedicated student of his faith.

When Lieberman arrived at Yale in 1960, John Kennedy had just been elected, breaking a religious barrier and bringing a new sense of optimism - and somehow, Lieberman says, that "brought it all together and focused me on public service."

That focus was sharpened by his work in the civil rights movement. He marched with Martin Luther King and went to Mississippi to register black voters. "There was a real sense there you could make a difference," he says. "I watched the marches lead to the civil rights acts of the '60s and the change they brought. I'm sure that was a confirming experience that led me to run for office."

From the start, Lieberman has cut his own path in the public terrain. He's never been easy to categorize. (He says he's "independent minded.") He was an early supporter of the Vietnam War, just as he was of President Bush's invasion of Iraq. But he came to criticize the handling of both wars. Though an early advocate of gay rights, he opposes gay marriage. And he's fought as hard for the president's "faith based" initiatives as he has against his plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He's as comfortable explaining his opposition to gay marriage to a teenaged daughter of two lesbians in New Hampshire (he calls it "a difficult issue that a lot of people are struggling with") as he is speaking to a crowd of Hispanic fundamentalist Christians in the Bronx.

In both cases, he invokes the name of God without a hint of self-consciousness. But it's in the Bronx, after being endorsed by an organization of Hispanic clergy, that his years of study of the Torah are most evident. Lines of scripture tumble off his tongue: " 'As for me, in my house, we will serve the Lord,' " he says, quoting Joshua's farewell oration to the children of Israel. Lieberman makes it clear that he's grateful for the endorsement because it represents not only "a lot of political power, but a lot of spiritual power as well. And 'From whence does my wealth and honor come? It comes from the Lord.' "

Some of Lieberman's own allies have attacked him for being too open about his faith in the public arena; critics have called him sanctimonious. (His reaction to the news that Hussein was captured: "Hallelujah, praise the Lord. This is something that I have been advocating and praying for for more than 12 years.") But he's never apologized for it, and says he's never been penalized for it. During the 2000 campaign, he says, he never experienced anti-Semitism.

To supporters, that independence is Lieberman's core strength: He knows himself well. "More than any of the other Democratic candidates, he's really comfortable in his own skin," says Katrina Swett, one of his campaign's national cochairs. "He shares that with both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It's delightful to hear him crack jokes because he finds them genuinely amusing."