The day the phone call came, the nation saw an awestruck, humble man, eyes raised to the horizon, proclaiming with gratitude, ``Miracles happen.''

But Joseph I. Lieberman's ascent to a spot on the Democratic national ticket was no accident of fate. Much as he would thank God, abundantly, for plucking him from the pack, Lieberman had spent much of his adult life maneuvering to the front of the line. From his days at Stamford High School, where he first set his sights on the U.S. Senate, to the well-timed tirade against President Clinton's moral lapses that inscribed him in the country's consciousness, Lieberman climbed to prominence in deliberate, calculated steps, driven by a keen ambition borne of both duty and ego.

``He was able to understand politics at an early age,'' said Joseph J. Fauliso, a Democrat who served with Lieberman in the state Senate. Like many of Lieberman's colleagues, Fauliso viewed last week's news as an inevitable climax to a story that began 30 years ago, when the brazen Yale graduate who had carefully cultivated party leaders took on fellow Democrat Edward L. Marcus in a primary.

``The timing was right, he was prepared for it, and he took advantage of it,'' Fauliso said of the upstart who won that 1970 race. ``That's pretty much what has taken place in his political career, at each step.''

Those who have watched Lieberman's climb from state legislator to attorney general to U.S. senator say he has never been a seat-of-the-pants, go-with-your-gut politician. He agonized publicly over decisions such as whether to support Clarence Thomas' controversial appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991 and Clinton's economic plan two years later, his cautiousness an anomaly in a system that values certitude.

Even as an activist student who ran the Yale newspaper in the 1960s, Lieberman had to be persuaded to join his classmates on a trip to rural Mississippi to help register black voters. Initially, he wanted to stay behind and report on the adventures of other civil rights workers who were venturing into the South in the fall of 1963. Not until two of his mentors persuaded him to make the journey did Lieberman leave the cool, heady sanctuary of Durfee Hall for the hot, gritty danger of Dixie.

``I was grateful that I was motivated by others, and then ultimately decided myself, chose myself, to be involved,'' Lieberman said in an interview for a Yale student's 1992 history thesis. ``It showed me the importance of not being too cautious. When a moment of opportunity comes to make a difference, you should take it.''

But if Lieberman has been slow to recognize opportunity, once he does, he dives in with unparalleled focus. Friends and foes alike grade his political acumen as among the finest of his day. God may have created the man, but Lieberman perfected the candidate.

Before he left for Mississippi, Lieberman tapped out an editorial for the Yale Daily News, in which he quoted a section of the Talmud to explain what was driving him to go. The same blend of ego and duty, infused with religion, continues to sustain the Lieberman miracle today.

``If I am not for myself, who will be?'' the editorial said. ``If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when then?''

Into The Mainstream

Like many second-generation American Jews who grew up with family stories of angst and struggle, Joseph Isador Lieberman, an oldest child and only son, felt a desire and a responsibility to excel in the mainstream.

Neither his parents nor his grandparents, who came to America from Poland and Austria in the early 1900s, had attended college. Growing up in Stamford, young Joe idolized his father, a sturdy, easygoing man who drove a bakery truck from New Haven to Bridgeport, at all hours, for $18 a week. The bond between father and son ran so deep that family members recall young Joe stuttering the entire year that his ``Pop,'' Henry, was away in the Army during World War II.

Throughout his career -- and on the day he was selected by Gore -- Lieberman would speak of the sacrifices made by his father, who had opened his own liquor store on Stamford's Hamilton Avenue in 1940 and retired 40 years later.

``Pop was a quiet man, but he spoke to us clearly with his actions. Strength, Principle, Civility,'' Lieberman wrote in a 10-page eulogy that he read at his father's funeral in 1986. ``These are his legacies to us. These were his ideals. These are our inheritance and our responsibility now.''

That sense of responsibility weighed on Lieberman early in life. In his book ``In Praise of Public Life,'' he recalls a ``vaguely understood desire to excel'' that drove him to run for president of his ninth-grade class, a campaign he won using colorful posters scribbled with rock 'n' roll song lyrics. He had pushed himself the same way as a 9-year-old at summer camp, where he had taken charge of a simple arts-and-crafts session and led his fellow campers to build an elaborate miniature golf course.

His push to succeed was not without pain. Friends and family members knew that his relaxed demeanor belied an acute fear of failure. He used to throw up before some Little League games. As a Yale freshman -- a public school kid surrounded by preppies -- his nerves were so ragged that his grades suffered, and he was tormented by thoughts of getting thrown out. While he found strength in his family's religion, Orthodox Judaism also kept him from social events on Friday nights and Saturdays.

Though Lieberman's upbringing had instilled in him an undefined sense of duty, it was John F. Kennedy who propelled him into public service. But while Kennedy might have started the engine, Lieberman still had to steer.

He chose his first political venture by joining the staff of the Yale Daily News. In the absence of a strong student council, the newspaper was considered the gathering place for student leaders in the early '60s. It was here that Lieberman would make his first run for power.