Four years ago, on the night he became the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Joe Lieberman had kind words for just one politician who wasn't his running mate: "my dear friend John McCain ... a great man."

When he took the stage at the Xcel Energy Center Tuesday night, Lieberman went much further, delivering a convention speech in which he called his dear friend "the original maverick."

"What you can expect from John McCain as president is precisely what he has done this week -- which is to put country first," Lieberman told the delegates, referring both to the convention's slogan and its response to Hurricane Gustav. "That is the code by which he has lived his entire life and that is the code he will carry with him into the White House."

The remarkable spectacle of a onetime vice-presidential running mate rallying the party he formerly lambasted dramatized the extraordinary political journey Lieberman has taken since 2000.

Then, he was a moderate Democrat chosen in part because he was an Orthodox Jew and willing to forcefully criticize President Bill Clinton's moral lapses.

But he later broke with his party over the war in Iraq, defending President Bush and hewing closely to McCain's unstinting support of it.

He lost a Democratic primary race for reelection to his Connecticut Senate seat, but held onto it by running as an independent.

'The answer is simple'

Tuesday night's speech most likely marked Lieberman's final rupture with the party.

He addressed it head-on in prepared remarks Tuesday: "What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this? The answer is simple. I'm here to support John McCain because country matters more than party. I'm here tonight because John McCain is the best choice to bring our country together and lead our country forward."

He also spoke directly of his war stand, which so endeared him to McCain and alienated the Democrats.

"When others were silent, John McCain had the judgment to sound the alarm about the mistakes we were making in Iraq," Lieberman said. "When others wanted to retreat in defeat from the field of battle, when Barack Obama was voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground, John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion."

Returning in honor

Because of McCain's longstanding support of the troop surge in Iraq, "today, our troops are at last beginning to come home, not in failure, but in honor," Lieberman said.

He also referred to Gustav, which wreaked such havoc on the convention, using it to stress the bipartisan theme that McCain hopes will allow him to attract independent voters.

"John understands that it shouldn't take a natural disaster like Hurricane Gustav to get us to take off our partisan blinders and work together to get things done," he said. "It shouldn't take a natural disaster to teach us that the American people don't care much if you have an "R" or a "D" after your name."

Lieberman's speech was the culmination of his work as one of McCain's most tireless campaign trail surrogates.

The bond between them is so tight that McCain considered picking him as his running mate, which would have been even more unprecedented than his appearance Tuesday night.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-518-3182