STAMFORD — U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, a Connecticut Democrat, returned to his high school in Stamford Monday morning to announce his candidacy for president in 2004.

With the announcement, Lieberman becomes the first Jewish presidential candidate to run on a major-party ticket. He also becomes the third Yale graduate to throw his name in for the Democratic nomination in 2004, joining Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ’66 and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean ’71.

Flanked by a cohort of family members, including his wife and mother, and classmates from his 1960 graduating class, Lieberman stressed the importance of transcending partisan politics to resurrect the America dream, which he said is “threatened by terrorism and tyrants from abroad and a weak economy that makes it harder to live a better life here at home.”

“Today, I am ready to put our country first and fight for what’s right for the American people,” Lieberman, 60, said at the press conference. “And I intend to win.”

Lieberman had said last fall that he would not run in 2004 if his running mate in 2000, Al Gore, decided to challenge current President George W. Bush ’68 again. But Gore’s decision not to run in 2004 opened the door for the junior senator from Connecticut. Lieberman’s vice presidential bid two years ago gives him the most name recognition of any Democratic challenger.

Known as a centrist in his views — “a different kind of Democrat” in his own words — Lieberman promised “not to hesitate to tell my friends when I think they are wrong and tell my opponents when I think they are right.”

During a prepared statement and in a question-answer session following his brief speech, Lieberman reaffirmed his belief in a strong military, the importance of faith, and offered some explicit criticism of President Bush’s handling of the economy and North Korean brinkmanship.

While he was peppered with questions about his controversially prominent Orthodox Jewish faith, his support of school vouchers in certain situations and his ambiguous relationship with Gore, Lieberman received overwhelming support from his early peers.

Alex Lionetti, a high school classmate, described Lieberman as a talented, yet grounded, politician who has changed little since his days in the old brick building on Strawberry Hill Avenue.

“We knew great things would happen to Joe Lieberman,” said Lionetti, who incidentally ended up marrying the senator’s prom date. “Joe has remained Joe throughout the years. He’s never forgotten where he came from. We’re very happy to be a part of this.”

Lieberman’s 88-year-old mother, Marcia, flashed smile after smile as she watched her only son make history. She shed some tears when asked about the significance of the day.

“I’m excited,” she said. “What can I tell you? It’s beyond my dreams.”

James Faulk has known Joe Lieberman since their days at the Elm Street Elementary School in Stamford. Recalling his boyhood days working in a local Jewish bakery, Faulk, sporting a feathered hat and pink sunglasses, has big plans if Lieberman takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“When he gets to the White House, I want to bake rye bread for him,” Faulk said. “Just one time.”

After revealing his presidential ambitions, Lieberman then visited an Advanced Placement European History class at the high school, where he fielded queries from current students. He continued on to the Stamford Diner, the latest installment of the famous “Cup of Joe with Joe” campaign, in which he chats with his constituents over coffee.

Despite the energy inside the walls of the schoolhouse about Lieberman’s candidacy, about a dozen people toted banners and chanted anti-war rhymes in protest of Lieberman’s foreign policy stances.

“Not all Jews will vote for Joe, the occupation’s got to go,” the group chimed, citing Israel’s disputed presence in Gaza and the West Bank.

“He claims an authority to speak for Jews, and we object to that,” said Emmaia Gelman, a Tarrytown resident, of Lieberman’s controversially prominent faith. “The idea of a monolithic Jewish thought is deeply troubling.”

Lieberman will continue to serve as senator during his campaign.