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Center, but not front: Lieberman's quandary

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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."

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