Los Angeles Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew with a reputation for moral rectitude, crashed through a historic barrier Wednesday night as he accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president and began to tell Americans who he is and to cast the differences between Republicans and Democrats in sharp relief.
"Only in America," Lieberman declared, marveling. "Right? Only in America."
The Connecticut senator's speech electrified the Democrats who packed the convention hall and hailed him the first Jew on a major party's national ticket as proof that theirs is the real party of diversity.
The vice presidential nominee sparked one of the first genuine displays of emotion at the convention, as delegates waved thousands of vertical red signs that read "Lieberman." The crowd cheered the vice presidential candidate as he entered to the strains of "Chariots of Fire," a film about the successes of a Jewish runner despite prejudice.
"Is America a great country or what?" Lieberman asked, with the kind of incredulousness that he has displayed since Vice President Gore chose him as his running mate last week.
Lieberman, 58, used his speech to affirm Gore's character, to challenge Republican assertions, to fill in the blanks of his biography and to refine the one-dimensional image many Americans have of him based on his religion.
Drawing a sharp distinction between Democrats and Republicans, Lieberman said he tries to see the world through the eyes of his immigrant grandmother; of his father, who grew up in an orphanage and drove a bakery truck through the nights of his adulthood; of the eyes of his wife's parents, who survived concentration camps; of the African-Americans he marched alongside in the 1960s and through those of others who endure discrimination.
"And that's why I believe that the time has come to tear down the remaining walls of discrimination in this nation based on race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation," Lieberman said.
He and his fellow Democrats see the world through different eyes than Republicans, Lieberman said.
Wading in lightly at first, Lieberman set to work criticizing the opposition in a manner both assertive and gentle, so as not to besmirch his own image as one of the most civil members of a rancorous Congress.
"Our opponents are decent and they are likable men," he said of the Republican presidential and vice presidential nominees, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. "I am proud to call many in their party my friends. But America must understand: there are very real differences between us in this election."
Although the Republicans are talking about traditional Democratic issues among them education, health care and Social Security Lieberman asserted that their proposed solutions fall short. He and Gore, he said, will protect the environment, insure all children, repair public schools, preserve Social Security and Medicare and pay off the national debt.
"It's this simple," Lieberman said. Turning Bush's own words against him, he added, "We Democrats will expand the prosperity they will squander it."
Having burst into the national spotlight two years ago as the first prominent Democrat to label President Clinton's personal behavior as not only inappropriate but "immoral," Lieberman is expected to bring moral heft to Gore's candidacy. During his speech, he described Gore as "a man of vision and a man of values."
He strived to transfer some of his squeaky clean image to the man who once had it himself. Lieberman said it is because of his "honesty," "strength," "integrity" and "character" that "Al Gore must become the next president of the United States."
In the eight days since Gore announced his vice presidential choice, Lieberman has brought a new level of energy to the campaign and that was apparent Wednesday night.
At one point, he had to stop speaking because the crowd would not stop chanting: "Joe! Joe! Joe!"
"This is the most excited I've seen the convention so far," said Ana Cruz, a delegate from Tampa, Fla. "It shows what a solid decision this was, and how strong a leader Al Gore will be for our country."
Besides introducing himself to the American people, Lieberman needed to mollify the more liberal Democrats who dominate this convention's ranks and remain troubled by some of his centrist positions, even as he reached out to the moderate swing voters likely to decide the election.
"As for labor issues, I think Lieberman falls right into the middle, a very safe pick," said Wilbur Wilson, a giant, bearded steelworker delegate from Des Moines, Iowa. "He isn't a candidate labor would jump up and down about, but he isn't one we can't support either. I like the fact that he's Jewish. Our union has made racial and ethnic diversity a very high priority."
In the heartland of America far beyond the hothouse of the convention center, voters in swing states said they would watch Lieberman more closely than they usually watch vice presidential candidates, paying particular attention to how he handles his religious obligations and his duties to his country.
"I would like to hear him say that if there should ever come a time, God forbid, that the nation is in crisis and his presence is needed on the Sabbath, that he'll absolutely be there working like a dog for us," said Katherine Yu, a 29-year-old Chicago lawyer for the American Bar Association, who is undecided.
Lieberman has said repeatedly that he would not let his religion interfere with any important duty as vice president; he voted on Saturdays when necessary as a senator.
Like Yu, other undecided voters are also curious about Lieberman's message and vision, most having heard bits and pieces about his conservative record and moral standards but few having heard from the man himself.
John Deeds, a 56-year-old Kansas City, Mo., bar owner, said Lieberman will have to convince him that he is a true Democrat, since he "seems so conservative."
"That's all I really know about him, that he's too conservative. He seems like a nice enough guy, but I need to know a little more about his background and where he stands on a lot of other issues" like Social Security. "I'm just wondering, who is this guy? I know a little bit about him, but not much."
Lieberman was introduced to the packed Staples Center by his wife, Hadassah Lieberman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
Following his speech, Gore's name was placed in nomination by his eldest daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff.