Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran for vice president as a Democrat eight years ago, ignited the Republican convention Tuesday night by praising...

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran for vice president as a Democrat eight years ago, ignited the Republican convention Tuesday night by praising his good friend John McCain as a person whose willingness to put the country above party earned him the right to be the next president of the United States.

Lieberman, now an independent senator from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats to control the Senate, criticized Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as too inexperienced to lead the country.

“Senator Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man … But eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times,” Lieberman said.

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“I’m here to support John McCain because country matters more than party,” said Lieberman, who has traveled often with McCain and was on his short list for vice president.

“I’m here because John McCain’s whole life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or a Republican is important. But it is not more important than being an American.”

Lieberman was the last major speaker as Republicans finished the second day of their national convention. Earlier, delegates heard from President Bush and former Sen. Fred Thompson.

Bush, in a cameo appearance via satellite, his last before a Republican convention as the nation’s leader, warned that the United States needs McCain in the Oval Office in the post-9/11 world.

“We live in a dangerous world. And we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain,” he said.

Bush, speaking for roughly eight minutes from the White House, said McCain has “the kind of courage and vision we need in our next commander in chief.”

But the president’s physical distance from the gathering in St. Paul underscored the gulf between the Bush and the McCain camps.

If the subplot of the Democratic convention in Denver was the lingering resentment between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the undercurrent in St. Paul is the long-standing tension between Bush and McCain and McCain’s efforts to distance himself politically from the man he hopes to succeed.

Though he campaigned diligently for Bush in 2004, the senator was seared by their clash during the 2000 presidential primaries, and Tuesday night brought their complex relationship full circle, with Bush symbolically handing the party over to McCain.

Bush mentioned McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, only once, as part of the “McCain-Palin ticket.” But first lady Laura Bush, in introducing her husband, cited the “impressive women” who have served in the Bush administration. And, she added, “America’s first female vice president will be a Republican woman.”

Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee who once played the gruff prosecutor on NBC’s “Law & Order” TV series and who is a longtime friend of McCain’s, came to Palin’s defense during his prime-time speech.

Palin, the first-term governor of Alaska, is “from a small town, with small-town values, but that’s not good enough for those folks who are attacking her and her family,” Thompson said.

The folksy former senator, alluding to Palin’s hunting skills and taste for moose, also said she is “the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field dress a moose … with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt.”

Thompson also berated Democrats for offering a presidential candidate he said failed to measure up to McCain.

Thompson never mentioned Obama by name, but there was no doubt to whom he referred.

“The Democrats present a history-making nominee for president,” Thompson said. “History-making in that he is the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president.”

Also in the hall were Bush’s father, the former President Bush, and his wife, Barbara. Both remain popular figures and were cheered before and after a video tribute.

With party regulars eager to resume the business of the convention — nominating McCain and Palin as his running mate — the Republicans are focused on establishing differences between their candidates and the Democratic ticket of Obama and Joe Biden.

Tuesday night’s theme was service.

“John McCain’s life is a story of service above self,” Bush said. Citing McCain’s time as a prisoner during the Vietnam War who was tortured, Bush said “his arms were broken but not his honor.”

“Fellow citizens, if the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain’s resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will,” the president said to cheers.

Bush congratulated McCain for supporting the White House plan to send additional troops to Iraq. McCain has claimed credit for pushing the buildup and has argued repeatedly that it shows he is more experienced in foreign and security issues than Obama, who opposed the war.

“Many in Congress said it [the buildup] had no chance of working,” Bush said. “Yet one senator above all had faith in our troops and the importance of their mission, and that was John McCain.”

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who like Lieberman is a McCain ally and a strong supporter of the Iraq war, did not speak as expected but planned to speak today.

Officials said they were still rearranging the program and it was unclear which night Palin would speak, though she had been set to address the convention tonight.

Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Cox News Service

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