Joe Lieberman Monday came back to the place where his dreams were born and told old friends and supporters he plans to pursue the ultimate American dream, a run for president.
His words and demeanor at Stamford High School reflected the trademark Lieberman calm, but the sweat covering his forehead suggested this was a mission like none he had ever undertaken.
He looked at his 88-year-old mother sitting near him on the stage. His children, Matt, Rebecca and Hana, gazed at him. His wife, Hadassah, was by his side, and just behind them were classmates from 1960, the year of John F. Kennedy, when politics held such vast promise for the sons and daughters of such immigrants as the senior class president, Joe Lieberman.
``It was here that my parents, Henry and Marcia, themselves children of immigrants, worked their way into the American middle class and gave my sisters and me the opportunities they never had,'' Lieberman, 60, told an audience of students, faculty members and old friends.
``And it was here that I first understood the power of the promise America makes to all its people,'' said the first major Jewish presidential candidate in the country's history, ``that no matter who you are or where you start, if you work hard and play by the rules, you can go as far in this country as your God-given talents will take you.''
Unlike other candidates, who have teased the public with their ``intentions'' to run and promised an elaborate series of media events to make it official, Lieberman was firm and unequivocal.
``I am ready to announce today,'' he told the 150 people shoehorned into a small auditorium. ``I am a candidate for president of the United States. This morning I will be filing the necessary papers to form a campaign committee, and I will then begin working to earn the support of the American people.''
He then stood ramrod straight, his dark suit not betraying even a wrinkle, and basked in the polite applause. It was a reaction that mirrored the man. There was none of the foot-stomping or carefully timed balloon drops that usually occur at these events. This was more a heartfelt show of respect and warmth for a hometown hero.
Now comes the hard part.
Connecticut's junior senator has a two-fold mission: to separate himself from an increasingly crowded field of Democratic rivals and to separate himself from President Bush.
There were hints Monday of how he'll try to do that, as Lieberman kept promoting himself as the liquor-store owner's kid who rode the American wave. Though he never said it, the contrast to the patrician Bush, the son of a president and the grandson of a Connecticut U.S. senator, was clear.
Distancing himself from Bush will be harder than simply comparing their roots. Lieberman talked about differences Monday, on tax policy and the environment, on health matters and ideologies.
But when asked if he disagreed with the president on Iraq, Lieberman went into the analytic mode so familiar in Washington, saying, ``I'm grateful President Bush has focused on Iraq. ... By and large I could disagree with one nuance or another toward Iraq.'' But that would be nitpicking, Lieberman said. What's important is ``I support what the president has done.''
That view has already spurred whispers among Democratic activists, many of whom are far more skeptical of Bush's military initiatives.
While the senator leads a crowded Democratic pack in some national polls, he needs to find a way to make his campaign distinctive. He promised Monday to do that, saying he would show voters ``I am a different kind of Democrat.''
While he's tried to carve out a niche as the moderate in this race, his record suggests that's not always so. While he sides with Republicans on some military and faith-based issues, he generally votes like a diehard Democrat and gets high marks from liberal groups for his overall voting record.
But Lieberman is not a favorite in any early key states. In Iowa, the front-runner is neighbor Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean appear to have momentum in New Hampshire. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is well-known in South Carolina.
Then there is the unknown -- Lieberman is the first major Jewish candidate in a nominating race, the impact of which, if any, is harder to pin down. It was not an apparent factor in 2000, when he was Al Gore's ticket-mate.
Yet the topic came up more than once Monday after his announcement speech, as reporters asked whether the country would willingly accept a Jewish president.
``Times have changed,'' Lieberman insisted, from the days when Catholics -- Al Smith in 1928 and Kennedy in 1960 -- had to deal with those suspicious of their religious beliefs.
Anyway, Lieberman vowed, ``My faith is at the center of who I am. I'm not going to conceal that.''
Lieberman comes to the race with a resume that's got doses of hometown Connecticut, onetime rising state political star and, more recently, important national figure.
His homecoming Monday was a festive affair. Bonnie Gleason, his fourth-grade crush, was there, and he was introduced by Principal Carmine Limone, class of '61.
Lieberman, said Limone, was known as ``Mr. Personality, someone who always had a kind word for everyone.''
While Stamford nurtured the young Democrat's dreams of public service and national ambition, Yale shaped the thinking that would guide him through his public career.
He rode the Democratic wave of the times, working with fellow New Haven liberals in New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 challenge, first to President Johnson and then to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But he also became a student of the establishment and its political process, authoring the biography of Connecticut and national Democratic chairman John Bailey.
The ties he built in New Haven helped him upset then-state Senate Majority Leader Edward Marcus, who had alienated Bailey and other party regulars, in 1970. Lieberman would eventually get that job himself before leaving the Senate in 1980 to run for Congress.
In an interview, Lieberman recalled his string of successes -- including his giant-killer role in 1988 in toppling incumbent Sen. Lowell P. Weicker -- as a guidepost for this presidential bid.
``I've taken on tough fights,'' he said. ``I suppose the most compelling evidence I give you now is ask my wife. She will tell you I'm very stubborn.''
Senator And Candidate
As a senator -- Lieberman won his third term in 2000 -- he has gained a reputation as a keen analyst of issues and someone willing to find the common ground that gets bills passed. But he's also become known as too sensitive to criticism, sometimes too willing to compromise and unable to slug it out in tough political arenas.
Some of those troubles surfaced Monday in questioning by reporters. Lieberman had backed experimental school-voucher programs, anathema to many public-school officials, then backed off when he ran with Gore.
Monday, he was back on, saying he supported ``student scholarships to help them get a better education.'' Those getting that aid, though, would have to come from families living below the poverty level, could not involve funds from the existing public-school system, and ``go for a limited period of time'' and then be evaluated.
Lieberman's style Monday was to put an iron fist into his velvet glove. He addressed the criticism that he's too often on all sides of issues.
``Some mornings when I wake up, I may not know exactly where I am. But I promise you -- I will always know who I am and what I stand for.''
He ticked off positions he's taken over the years -- a strong military presence in Iraq and Bosnia, scolding the entertainment industry for ``peddling sex and violence to our children,'' fighting for civil rights and environmental protection.
And, Lieberman pledged, ``I will talk about the tough fights ahead. Strengthening homeland security while protecting Social Security. Making affordable health care available to every American. Fixing our failing schools. Restoring fiscal responsibility and economic opportunity, with sensible tax cuts and sound investments that will bring back the prosperity of the Clinton-Gore years.''
Lieberman fielded a second set of student questions in James Terlizzo's advanced European history class, the most pointed of which was John Kalinowski's request for the senator's views on the draft; the 23 students here will turn 18 in a year or two.
``There's no real sentiment for it,'' said Lieberman. ``The only time I can see going back to a draft is if, God forbid, we're in a major military conflict ... and hopefully that won't happen again.''
The students were polite, if under-whelmed. ``I can't vote yet,'' said Alexander Zavras.
``I'd probably be against Lieberman,'' said George Poulos. ``My grandfather is a big Republican.''
Lieberman's demeanor was steady as always, even as he left to chants from a small group of protesters across the street. ``Jews Against the Occupation,'' a New York-based group, chanted, ``Not all Jews will vote for Joe.'' ``Lieberman stands for pretty much the American position on Israel,'' said lawyer Jonathan Kirshbaum. ``That's a position that leads to human-rights violations.''
Friends say Lieberman is calm, almost serene as he heads into the political war of a lifetime. He gathered some of them at his Washington home Sunday before heading to Connecticut.
The senator, said some familiar with his thinking, goes into this race having thought about it for at least two years. He feels he's been tested at the national level, vetted thoroughly by the media, and can easily overcome his perceived weaknesses.
Hadassah Lieberman fretted a bit Monday about the personal toll the race will take, but her husband said he's ready for a presidential fight that almost certainly will get ugly, perhaps even in the Senate halls.
``You may get some blood and sweat on your face,'' he said. ``The stakes are very high. Those who don't want you to succeed will be coming at you and you have to be ready for that.''
Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic activist, thought Lieberman's calm could even be an asset.
``We need more likable politicians in this world,'' she said.
His campaign organization already boasts such national political veterans as pollster Mark Penn, media consultant Carter Eskew, Clinton aide Jim Kennedy and others. He should be able to weather setbacks, if only because he has arguably one of the strongest fundraising networks of any Democrat.
Now he has to sell himself. Lieberman has had only one major campaign swing through Iowa so far, leading Dennis Goldford, political analyst at Drake University in Des Moines, to note: ``He has a lot of work to do here.''
He's been to New Hampshire repeatedly over the past year and has the backing of former party chairman Jeff Woodburn, but he has drawn criticism for his stand on Iraq.
South Carolina is probably the place Lieberman could make his breakthrough. For a Jewish candidate to triumph in a state where the Christian right has shown strong political momentum would be interpreted as an important breakthrough.
Add it all up, and at this early stage, Lieberman's chances of being nominated are as good as anyone's.
``Even name recognition won't ultimately carry a lot of weight,'' said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. ``This thing is wide open.''