Center, but not front: Lieberman's quandary

Twenty hours after Joe Lieberman sustained one of the most stunning jolts of his political career - word that Al Gore would endorse rival Howard Dean - the Connecticut senator appears relaxed, determined, and his genial old self.

"See, I told you we'd make some news for you," he says, smiling wryly as he puts his hand on a reporter's shoulder after a press conference at a local restaurant.

The former vice presidential candidate then walks to a waiting television camera and begins the mantra that he will repeat, with only slight variations, dozens of times during the next 24 hours when the Gore endorsement is raised. It is a nuanced and calculated reaction that encapsulates the moderate Democrat's experience, temperament, and political savvy.

It is clear that Lieberman has been hurt, politically and personally, by Gore's failure to reach him before the news was leaked. Lieberman, known for his civility, speaks without a trace of anger. But in what many see as a sign of his political acuity, he's also capitalized on the sympathy inspired by Gore's handling of the affair - though it's been clear since the two ran together that they disagree on many issues.

"I was surprised because I heard it from the media, and I was surprised because I hadn't heard from him," he says (though several reports indicated that Gore had, in fact, tried to reach Lieberman several times in advance of his endorsement - but never got through). "I was surprised," he continues, clearly comfortable in the glare of the klieg lights, "because he's endorsing someone whose positions on defense, on trade, on middle-class tax cuts, are so different from the positions that Al Gore has taken over the years, and dramatically different from Bill Clinton's positions throughout the 1990s."

Whether a fair assessment or not, Joseph Lieberman - son of immigrants, first in his family to go to college (Yale, at that), and first Jew to run for vice president - makes it sound true. In the past week, playing on momentum generated by his national exposure as "slighted former running mate," he's sharpened his attacks on Dean in an effort to pull away from the pack. Lieberman has called him "Dr. No," charged that Saddam Hussein would still be in power if Dean had his way, and lashed out at him as fiscally irresponsible (though Dean is known as a fiscal conservative who made balanced budgets a top priority as governor.)

Despite those attacks and a sense of momentum, Lieberman continues to languish in polls. The latest survey from New Hampshire places him fourth, with 7 percent of the vote, compared to Dean's first-place 46 percent. Nationally, Lieberman does slightly better, at 13 percent - but that's still less than half the support Dean has. But Lieberman, a skilled politician, says he remains undaunted: The fight is just another step in a long, familiar road.

He was elected to the state senate just three years after law school, and his long career of political triumphs, policy fights, and thoughtful compromises have won him respect and affection in both Washington and Connecticut.

But since a young, idealistic Joe Lieberman marched on Washington with Martin Luther King in 1963, he's become far more conservative than many Democrats, especially on issues of defense and foreign policy. And it's that, pundits say, that has hampered him in his presidential aspirations: This is an age when Democrats are angry, when many believe the election was stolen and the war in Iraq is immoral. And those voters are looking for a candidate who can give voice to that outrage, not one who has gone out of his way to support the American invasion, analysts say. Lieberman's second-tier showing has been indicative of that gulf of expectations - and indicative, too, of a campaign that foundered almost as soon as it began.

"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."

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."

That humor is never far from the surface. After a grueling morning, beginning with two live TV interviews, a "meet and greet" at a local breakfast spot, a rock-star-like reception and Q & A at Concord High School, followed by a "press availability" and a "one on one" with a local television station - and constant calls between each event - the senator settles into the backseat of a red SUV, clearly exhausted. The first thing he does is take out his BlackBerry and scroll through his messages.

"That's nice. ''You are and have been in my thoughts,' " he quotes softly from an e-mail.

"From your wife?" a reporter asks.

"That wasn't my wife. I'm always in her thoughts," he says, then pauses. "I hope."

"Be careful; you just got a lot more interesting," his communications director, Jano Cabrera, pipes up.

Lieberman laughs delightedly.

Two days after the Gore announcement, Lieberman's message is clearer than ever. The setback is just a "turn" in "a long road," one that's "doubled my determination to fight for what's right for my party and right for my country. To me, the choice is clear now for the voters in these Democratic primaries," he continues. "Are we going to build on Bill Clinton's record and take our party and country forward, or are we going backward? And I would say, Howard Dean, and now Al Gore, they want to take the country back."

At Robin's Place, a restaurant filled with more Republicans than Democrats, Lieberman is back to the cajoling that's marked his career - reaching out to the other side in search of common ground.

He's as interested in what Republican voters Ralph and Barbara Smallidge think - they stuck around after their bacon and eggs when they heard he was coming - as he is in the thoughts of Charissa Koulovatas, an undecided registered Democratic who's a local waitress.

It's clear he's hoping to convince the Smallidges that he's the John McCain of 2004, the real independent who can unite the parties with integrity.

"Sure, I'm hoping for a little of that McCain magic dust," he admits. He settles into a seat at the counter by Ms. Koulovatas and almost tells her story for her: "You don't have health insurance, do you?"

"No, I don't."

"That's because where you work, they don't give it to you."

"No, they don't."

"And you can't afford it on your salary."

"No, I can't."

"So you're the classic case. This is an outrage. While you're working your way up to something better, the country should give you a hand." The young woman nods, says she'll check out his plan online. The two shake hands.

He moves on to a nearby table, but Koulovatas remains undecided. "I tend not to trust politicians," she says dryly. "But he seems like a nice enough guy."

Lieberman is unruffled: He's done his best. It doesn't bother him that the pundits say he's far too moderate and mild for today's Democrats. In fact, he considers that moderation his greatest strength. "It takes more than anger to be a good president," he says. "It takes strength of character."

And he insists, even now, that the race is wide open: "The real guy who's leading in the polls is a guy named 'Undecided,' '' he likes to say. He's banking on New Hampshire voters to prove his point. Lieberman and his wife are even moving here for the month to ensure that voters don't forget him. "People in New Hampshire ... love to knock down the predictions of the pundits and the pollsters," he says. "So I love this state. Every day I go at it with a real sense of optimism that I can make my case - that I'm the president they need to make this country safe."

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