He could be enjoying a luxurious life in the Washington suburbs, but instead he's bent on running a country where two of the three previous leaders were executed, and the third was indicted for crimes against humanity

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The scene in the hotel ballroom was almost familiar.

The FOBs waited for their candidate, whose photograph taken at the Democratic National Convention was affixed to the lectern. Men greeted one another with macho-intimate half-chest-bump half-hugs and talked in small groups about the most important election of their lives, stars-and-stripes flag pins on their lapels.

On that Sunday afternoon late last summer in Beltsville, a campaign manager gave the usual remarks about his man's record of sacrifice and about shifting the campaign to its next phase. With the slow jams of a band at another reception oozing through the wall, the candidate himself finally took the stage and, between fits of applause, wooed voters and touted his record as a legislator independent of a too-powerful executive branch. Over and over again, he told his supporters that, God willing, he would be their next president.

But the event's familiarity went only so far. The chest-bump greetings were followed by a strange finger-snapping handshake. The lapel pin flags had just one star, and 11 stripes. There was an accent on the candidate's fine English. The FOBs were "Friends of Brumskine," Charles Walker Brumskine, and he was rallying the good people of suburban Maryland to make him the next president of war-weary Liberia.

"This is not about a job. This is not about money. This is about the remaking of our country," Brumskine said, trying to get comfortable at the lectern. "Your parents left us a place to call home, but my generation destroyed what our parents left. It is our responsibility to rebuild it."

This is the nature of today's Liberia. Started as a colony for free blacks from the United States in the early 1800s, the small country on the west coast of Africa is unique in its mix of descendants of American pioneers and African tribesmen. But after 200 years and a long civil war, the black Promised Land has turned black cloud. Today, the voters are in bombed-out Monrovia, Gbarnga and Ganta, but much of the country's money and influence has found asylum in places such as Minneapolis, Providence and Ellicott City.

Brumskine, 54, knew the people gathered in Beltsville and their concerns. His own family has lived in Northern Virginia for years; he did, too, after fleeing Liberia and its notoriously violent president at the time, Charles Ghankay Taylor, in 1999. Brumskine returned to Africa in 2003 to challenge Taylor for the presidency.

Friends tried to talk him out of it. A family prayer meeting was called. Some questioned how far off the plane he'd get before Taylor gunned him down.

This is just crazy, some said. Of the last three men elected to the job Brumskine was hoping to win, two were brutally executed and the third -- Taylor -- is under indictment for crimes against humanity. Virginia was sanity and solid ground. Brumskine had a growing law practice in Washington, a nice suburban home, a wife with a good job and a kid at Harvard. Liberia was a bloody riddle on a rocky shore.

The Beltsville stop marked the end of a fundraising tour that had taken Brumskine from Staten Island to Sacramento and from Pittsburgh to Tulsa, 12 cities in all. From this point forward, he would be in Liberia to concentrate on the election, which is scheduled for October 11, 2005. In a huge field of candidates, he is one of a handful regularly mentioned as real contenders.

Among those in attendance at the fundraiser were well-fed, well-groomed, well-dressed children, some with plates of food, at least one with his portable video game. When Brumskine told the crowd he wanted an 11-hour school day to remake the Liberian school system, the people in the room tittered and shuffled in their seats. Not two months later, in the sweltering Liberian upcountry, he would stand before another audience. The children there would be wearing donated clothes and fighting for spots under the single bare bulb in a concrete gymnasium. When Brumskine made the same campaign pledge, the crowd would whoop and cheer as if he'd promised each of them $1 million and a seat in Heaven.

By the end of the evening in Beltsville, many in the audience were ready to drop a pledge or a donation into the collection plate -- a flimsy cardboard box -- but they had a few questions first.

And there are good questions to be asked. How can you see inside the heart of a man who once joined forces with the foul tyrant Taylor? How, in the muddle that is Liberian politics, can you be sure he is not still somehow on Taylor's side? But how, on the other hand, can you question the mettle of a man who returned to Liberia to challenge Taylor directly -- and publicly, and without an army?

With her husband back in Liberia now for the election, Estelle Brumskine calls him on the phone from Alexandria maybe six or seven times a day. Sometimes she'll call him at work just to tell him she'll be out at the grocery store if he tries to call her. Sometimes Charles will be watching something on satellite TV, and he'll call Estelle in Virginia so they can watch it together and chat.

Estelle still remembers one Saturday morning in March 1999, she says, when he called to let her know he was alive.

Estelle describes taking the phone and perching on a couch in the sitting area of their three-story townhouse off Franconia Road. At the time, Brumskine was president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate, a leader of Taylor's party, and there had been reports of friction between them. Estelle was an ocean away. There on the couch, she says, surrounded by the perfect order of her home, the graceful lines of the drapes, the perpetually set dinner table with the gold-colored chargers and china, she heard the story of his escape.

The night before, he says, he was sitting watching TV in his villa at the Hotel Africa compound outside the capital, Monrovia. For no good reason, he had parked around back. The lights were out.

A goon squad -- men he assumes were working for Taylor -- came by, but it looked like no one was home, so they left. Brumskine, dozing off, didn't even know they'd been there.

They kept coming back, every hour, he says, until a neighbor rapped on his window at 2:30 in the morning.

"You've got to get out," the voice outside said. "They're going to kill you."

Brumskine and five loyal security officers sneaked out of the waterside hotel compound and along a moonlit riverbank to hide at a friend's house. That morning at the airport, after a white-knuckled wait at passport control, he made his exit, to Brussels. There he called Estelle before getting on a plane to Washington.

His desperate flight from Taylor is the central story of Brumskine's candidacy, which strikes a delicate balance between touting his experience in government and distancing himself from the destruction that marked Taylor's reign. The story establishes his credentials as a Taylor opponent, and it helps mask the awkward fact that until that point Brumskine had been in very tight with Taylor. It's a dramatic tale. The only question is: Is it true?

The answer, like everything else in Liberian politics, is vigorously disputed. The overheated charges that the candidates and their supporters fling at one another make U.S. election rhetoric seem excruciatingly restrained by comparison. In Liberia's constant spin cycle, misperception is reality, and it's nearly impossible to sort out who is telling the truth and which candidates, if any, are honest. And many of the foreign observers who pay attention to Liberia are unwilling to be quoted on the record, for fear of seeming to meddle in the election. One of them says that Brumskine "was starting to get in trouble [with Taylor] as early as '98 . . . The rumors were, even then, that [Brumskine] was afraid for his life. And probably rightly so. Taylor wouldn't hesitate to kill people he considered enemies."

Tiawan Gongloe is a Liberian human rights lawyer who was arrested without charge and beaten nearly to death in 2002 by members of Taylor's National Police, he says. He is now a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Although no fan of Taylor's, he's skeptical of Brumskine, too. He says Brumskine was a much closer ally to Taylor than he cares to admit now, and Gongloe casts doubt on the whole idea of a breach between them: "If Taylor wants to kill you," he says, "there's no way [Brumskine] would've gotten out through Roberts International Airport."

Charles Brumskine freely acknowledges that he wouldn't be where he is today without Charles Taylor. "The thing is about my association with Taylor, generally, it's the best thing that happened to my political life," he says. "I am the only presidential candidate today who has been in government . . . and come out with a clean slate." Taylor came to prominence in the early 1980s, with a reputation as one of the most corrupt men in the Liberian administration at the time, which is really saying something. But he had a falling out with the president, left the country, and on Christmas Eve 1989 invaded Liberia with a band of fighters, setting off years of factional fighting that devastated the country. Taylor and his men began the war with the best wishes, and funding, of well-meaning Liberians who wanted to see the oppressive previous regime ousted. But that changed as Taylor's army splintered into rival gangs that attacked civilians, kidnapped young children to use as soldiers and devised ever more gruesome ways of killing. The war continued long after the old regime fell, as Taylor and competing warlords fought to control the country's wealth. By 1997, as many as a quarter-million people had been butchered by all sides.

For years, Liberia was chaos set against an exotic backdrop of rain-forested mountains and pristine beaches. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flew in and out of the bush like so many flushed birds, returning to their homes only to be affrighted again and again.

Brumskine and his family lived on the move. He had grown up in a locally prominent family: He is a descendant of Liberia's original American settlers (possibly of a 12-year-old slave from Culpeper named Walter Brumskin, who arrived in Monrovia in 1843, freed by a former U.S. congressman from Rappahannock County), and his father was a member of the National Assembly. Brumskine worked after college for a wealthy Western corporation in Liberia before setting up a prosperous legal practice. After a coup in the 1980s, the Brumskines left Liberia and lived for several years in Texas -- their younger son was born there -- before returning home. When the war broke out in 1989, the Brumskines were just putting the finishing touches on their dream house in the Monrovia suburbs. As the fighting pushed toward the capital, Estelle and the kids got out, eventually settling in Alexandria, not far from some family members, in 1996; she's now a CPA for the American Chemical Society. For years Charles practiced law out of a suitcase, bouncing between Liberia and the United States. The Brumskines did well enough to send their children to elite American private schools: Charlyne, the oldest, to Foxcroft School in Middleburg, and her brother Charles to Fork Union Military Academy near Charlottesville; later, the last-born, Walker, would study at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

By 1995, a peace process was underway in Liberia, leading to new elections two years later. Taylor and other rebel leaders were allowed into Monrovia, and Brumskine was asked by mutual friends to moderate a town hall meeting where Taylor was introduced to the city's public. The respected lawyer and the feared warlord had met before -- it's a small country -- but that night, they seemed to hit it off. Gongloe was in attendance and says that Brumskine continuously referred to Taylor that night in 1995 as "Mr. President," two years prior to the elections. Before long, the two men had officially teamed up.

By the time of the election, Taylor controlled about three-quarters of the Liberian countryside and could use his military units to deliver rice to villages to buy votes. He as much as said he would restart the war if he didn't win. Crowds flocked around him with the infamous cry, "He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, and I will vote for him!" -- a chilling campaign slogan even if it was the macabre creation of his own fighters and loyalists.

Of his fateful decision to ally himself with Taylor, Brumskine says he was convinced that Taylor -- good, bad or ugly -- was going to dominate the voting. "I knew, like everyone else who had any amount of sense, that Taylor was going to win the election," he says, "and my going in was to ensure that there was a voice of reason in the country." He describes it as an "opportunity of history" to serve his country: to represent his home county in the Senate, where seats would be apportioned according to a party's showing in the presidential race.

By supporting Taylor, Brumskine says, he saw a chance to lead an independent legislature, something Liberia had never really had, with the backbone to stand up to Taylor when necessary. There's no way to ask Taylor about Brumskine, since he went into exile in Nigeria in 2003 and is forbidden to speak to the press. But in Brumskine he may have been looking for a more respectable image and a shrewd ally-at-law. Brumskine could also help deliver votes from his native Grand Bassa County, and he proudly played host to Taylor on a campaign trip there. Brumskine says he was certain that after so many years of war, Taylor knew it was time to do something for their country.

Against a badly divided opposition, Taylor's party rode his massive landslide to a majority in the legislature. Brumskine took a seat in the Senate and became Taylor's majority leader. On election night in July 1997, Taylor told observer Jimmy Carter that he wanted to be "a Mandela."

To outsiders at least, it looked like Brumskine was part of Taylor's inner circle. Wherever Taylor went, Brumskine was welcome. When Taylor met French President Jacques Chirac in Paris, he invited Brumskine to join the delegation. He called Brumskine "cousin," and they worked together day after day.

Today Taylor is accused of having treated the government as his personal crime machine -- pocketing state funds, using the police and armed forces as his private enforcers -- and fomenting the same terror and thuggery across the rest of West Africa. When Brumskine looks back on those times, he says he feels he was one man trying to hold back a flood. "There were indications from day one that it was not going to be an easy battle for me, but I was committed to the fight," says Brumskine. "I was hoping that, along the way, I would've been able to change some of my quote-unquote colleagues in the Senate to make a difference. Had I succeeded in doing that, we would've been able to control Mr. Taylor and change the direction of our country. But many times, whenever I got the Senate in the direction where I had my quote-unquote colleagues feeling good about themselves, [Taylor] would call a meeting of the leadership and threaten those guys and intimidate them, and then they would back down."

Brumskine says the end came in 1999, after a year and a half, when he went to a forum on Liberia in the United States and found others there snubbing him. He maintains that it was not until that moment that he learned, from fellow conference participants, about Taylor's misdeeds in neighboring Sierra Leone. In its indictment for crimes against humanity, the Special Court for Sierra Leone has said that Taylor spent 1997 to 1999 helping his longtime comrade Foday Sankoh murder, enslave, rape, loot and burn to get at Sierra Leone's diamonds. The hallmarks of that war were the men, women and children who had their hands and feet hacked off and messages carved in their skin in village raids.

Brumskine says he wanted no part of it. He was making friends in the United States and Europe: The National Democratic Institute had invited him to participate in programs to give politicians greater exposure to democratic rule, and the Carter Center had sought his help as an election observer in Nigeria. As news of Taylor's involvement in Sierra Leone came to light, Brumskine feared his own reputation would suffer.

He says he confronted Taylor and that Taylor told him, "I swear to God I had nothing to do with this," and asked, "What are you going to do?"

"Well," Brumskine says he replied, "I'm going to launch an investigation of the executive branch of government. That's part of my duty."

In February 1999, Brumskine announced on the Senate floor that he was establishing committees to investigate the government. When he traveled to Nigeria as an election monitor soon afterward, he says, Taylor began trying to remove him from the Senate. In the United States, Estelle says, she got anonymous warnings by phone. When Brumskine got back to Monrovia, he says, Taylor wouldn't speak to him. Other senators, including Grace Minor (who worked closely with Taylor and therefore is under some suspicion herself), went to Brumskine, urging caution, according to Brumskine and Minor. Taylor had a reputation for forgiving those who stole his money, but for brutally punishing those who stole his thunder.

When Brumskine refused to resign, Minor says, she feared for him -- and warned him in the final hour. "Please, Walker," she recalls saying, using his nickname, "don't fight too much."

Finally, in March, the party passed a vote of no confidence in him, and he resigned his post in the Senate leadership.

Just three days later, he says, he was fleeing Taylor's thugs by the light of the moon.

One afternoon in Monrovia late last year, members of the Center for the Promotion of Intellectual Development debate club spilled out of a tea shop into Carey Street and shouted to be heard over their own din. The moderator had the lost cause of trying to keep order in this all-day, every-day ritual. Part serious discussion, part entertainment. Part rant . . . well, all rant.

"The political situation is corrupt," a man shouted. "We have a generation of political criminals who are masquerading as 'the way forward.' The Liberian people are confused."

"Brumskine is a con man just like Taylor," another man said. "What Liberia is looking for is someone who can build consensus. Brumskine might still have enemies."

"It doesn't matter what he did before," cried another. "Brumskine is the man who will bring the people together."

People seem to see all of Liberia in Charles Brumskine, the murky past and the cloudy future, the good and the evil, the order and the chaos.

Another of this year's presidential candidates, Varney Sherman, was a law school classmate of Brumskine's, and his family, too, took shelter at one time in the Washington suburbs, in Bowie. What the two candidates seem to share most, however, is animosity, and they continually swap charges and countercharges.

Sherman says he doubts that Taylor ever threatened Brumskine's life: "Mr. Taylor would not murder someone that close to him; he never did before." He argues that "the issue" is Brumskine's choosing to join Taylor's party in the first place. "What are you trying to prove?" he says. "You came to save Liberia? You should have saved Liberia in 1997 by not joining that party."

Memories of Taylor haunt Brumskine's campaign. Many of Taylor's associates in the 1990s were also Brumskine's, and many are on U.N. watch lists, which track people under suspicion of or indictment for crimes against humanity. People such as the Dutchman Gus Kouwenhoven, who was arrested this year by authorities in the Netherlands on charges of illegal arms dealing and supporting militias that brutalized Liberian civilians, according to the Dutch prosecutor. Brumskine was Kouwenhoven's lawyer, structuring business deals, until he fled his villa at the Hotel Africa that March night in 1999 -- a villa Brumskine's firm had rented since 1995 from . . . Kouwenhoven, who owned the hotel. "I'm sure myself and my firm have represented people [accused of worse things] than Gus Kouwenhoven," Brumskine responds. "That's our profession. That's the calling that I chose going into school to be a lawyer." According to the Dutch prosecutor, the charges against Kouwenhoven relate to events that happened after 1999, when Brumskine was no longer working with him.

The Dutch court has restricted Kouwenhoven and his lawyer from responding publicly to the charges, but his attorney, Inez Weski, says, "We have already stated towards the press that the grounds of these accusations are not correct," and she criticizes the prosecution for not looking into reports that, she says, would have contradicted the charges. In a 2001 statement to The Washington Post, Kouwenhoven denied any involvement in the arms trade.

Another person on the U.N. lists is Minor, who as a senator with Brumskine in Taylor's party was close to both men. She is now described by the U.N. as having been a top lieutenant to Taylor, with ongoing ties to him, though she denies those allegations.

Minor spent countless hours with both of them from the earliest days on the campaign trail in 1997. "We were a good team," she says over a scratchy phone line from Ghana. "We all got together and made [Taylor] powerful."

She's stuck in Ghana, where she says she went for medical treatment in 2003, because of an international travel ban on Taylor and many of his associates.

"Mr. Brumskine, his excuse is, he got out early," Minor says. "But we know why he left." The reason Brumskine broke with Taylor, she asserts, was that his personal political ambitions were too obvious, not because of any investigation into the government's dealings in Sierra Leone. "Sierra Leone was not even in the question. That's one thing I'm sure of," she says. "All we knew at the time was he wanted to be president, and that's why they had the falling out. He told Mr. Taylor he wanted to be president." She says her knowledge is based on rumors at the time, as well as a meeting she witnessed where, she says, Taylor confronted Brumskine about the rumors.

"Do I appear to be stupid?" asks Brumskine. "For me to have said to Taylor that I want to be president, and that's the basis of our falling out, is to say that I'm very stupid. Of course it's complete foolishness." He says that back then he didn't want to be president, and that he doesn't know why Minor would invent such a story. "It's a culture in our country," he adds, "that there is never, ever an objective reason for things happening. It's always personal."

"The problem I have is that those guys cannot for the life of them still figure out how to place me, like Mr. Taylor couldn't place me," Brumskine says of his critics. "Why is it, within a culture of corruption and lack of love for one's country, there would be a guy who will sacrifice his law practice, expose his life to danger, distance himself from the affection of his family? They can't understand a matter of principle."

Brumskine's name does not appear on a U.N. watch list. During his political career, even while working with Taylor, he has been connected with Western groups promoting democracy, such as the National Democratic Institute, which welcomed Brumskine as one of several hundred "international leaders" to observe the 2004 Democratic convention, and the Carter Center, though both groups are quick to point out that they do not endorse specific politicians.

Brumskine insists that joining Taylor for the 1997 election was the right thing to do at the time: "Liberia was badly in need of leadership." His Senate service taught Liberians that things "didn't have to be business as usual," he says. "I showed them you can have a legislature independent of the president." Benedict Sannoh, a Liberian who was a partner in Brumskine's Washington law practice and now runs it alone, agrees. "In the few months Brumskine was there, the legislature had begun to operate on its own," he says. "After he left, the legislature went right back to its usual mode." Even Gongloe, a critic, seems to give credence to Brumskine's claim. When Brumskine resigned, "some people were disappointed," he says. "Brumskine had given some hope that he would stand up to Taylor."

But as for Brumskine's assertion that he joined Taylor's campaign as a way to reform from the inside, Gongloe says it's the equivalent of having tried to fix gangland Chicago by teaming up with Al Capone: "I don't agree with that logic. People have to stand up against wrongdoing. I think that was a colossal mistake by him." Gongloe points out that Liberia is a small country with very few professionals and very many poor, illiterate people who look up to those doctors and lawyers. That made it even worse, he argues, that someone of Brumskine's stature would join Taylor's party.

Foreign observers who know Brumskine are split. One agrees that Brumskine's change-from-within logic was sound. "Brumskine was just being a typical African politician, really. He could see where the power was. If he wanted to join forces with [Taylor] for his own ends, that's how you do it," says David Peterson, an election observer in 1997 and West Africa director for the National Endowment for Democracy. He says Brumskine would have had no chance to push his own agenda as a member of any of the opposition parties.

But another outside observer, who would speak only on condition of anonymity to avoid seeming to interfere in the election, disagrees: "You either had to be pretty stupid not to recognize Taylor was the kind of person he was, or you had to be able to avert your eyes and maybe do what you were told and do what you were expected to do in order for some sort of reward."

Brumskine himself maintains that he is the only one in Taylor's government "who came out more popular than when I went in." He says, "I have no regrets."

Charles Brumskine said that God had told him to be there, and he was sweating as if the hot, sodden exhalations of the Almighty were close upon him indeed.

The cheering throng that had escorted him through town was now compressed into St. John's United Methodist Church, pressing near as he mopped his brow with the same white handkerchief he had been waving along the half-mile walk. The gospel band ripped through a few tunes, and the faces of idle onlookers filled the windows behind him.

It was a dusty Friday afternoon last October in the small, central Liberian city of Gbarnga, the biggest town in Bong County, where hundreds of people had come to see Brumskine's presidential road show. He said he felt at home there, a day's bumpy journey from regular generator power and air conditioning in Monrovia, two days' transatlantic voyage from his family in Alexandria. There in the Liberian upcountry, as he traveled from town to town, Brumskine would stop along the road to greet elders who offered him plates of rice or kola nuts or coins or a live rooster, signs of welcome. He'd loosen his collar and press the flesh. Sometimes he'd speak the proper English of his lawyerly station, sometimes what he called the "small-small English" of ordinary uneducated people.

At the front of the harvest-yellow cement-block church, he sat in a high-backed deacon's chair, surrounded by the legacy of Liberia's 15-year civil war: youths too surly to heed pleadings not to stand on the windowsills, people and buildings broken and battered, a contingent of fully armed U.N. peacekeepers and their personnel carriers on the seminary campus outside.

After prayers were said, songs were sung, an offering was taken and hands were laid upon him, it was Brumskine's turn at the lectern. Hissing -- the Liberian shush -- quieted the crowd.

"Today I want you to join me as I possess Bong County in the mighty name of Jesus," he began. Here he was, he said, at the "crossroads of evil," a place feared and hated as the former headquarters of Charles Ghankay Taylor, and he was ready to redeem them. "I see through the eyes of faith a new Liberia," he cried. "I clothed myself in the blood of Jesus, and I said: 'Ghankay, your time is up. It is time for the Lord to reign.' "

Although only 40 percent of the country is officially Christian, a strong bond ties today's Liberia to the church groups that helped colonize the country and continue to send missionaries to help rebuild it. Christians make up a key voting bloc, and for many candidates, the language of politics is the language of Christianity.

"I am the president of Liberia in waiting," he shouted as the crowd cheered. "This is not a campaign statement. That is a statement of faith."

Brumskine was on the first day of a three-city jag. The election was still a year away, and this was his first big push since he'd declared the American phase of his campaign over. By law, Brumskine and the other candidates will be allowed to formally campaign only in the final six weeks before the election, but until then he's free to make all the "statements of faith" he wants.

Among the crowd of strangers were some men very familiar to Brumskine, who say they had risked much to bring him there in the first place.

Almost immediately after Brumskine left Liberia in 1999, about a dozen young men began meeting, hiding in plain sight in the vice president's offices with the door open so no one would get suspicious. At the time, elections were scheduled for 2003, and no one had stepped forward to oppose Taylor. The men would call themselves FOBs, Friends of Brumskine. Many of them, they say, were government staffers in their twenties and thirties, Christian and Muslim, a cross section of Liberia's 18 tribes. None of them, they say, was interested in running for office himself. After eight months, they decided to go for broke. They wrote Brumskine an e-mail.

"I have decided to write you for assistance in the form of rescuing our country from the abyss/dungeon it has been for many years of its existence," it read. "My suggestion in this regard is that a credible individual be encouraged to contest the elections. And knowing your track record in Liberian political history, I suggest that you consider putting yourself forward for this arduous task."

Brumskine was settled into his new life in the United States, one of about 1,200 Liberians who have landed in Washington, Maryland or Virginia since 1999. He had opened a solo practice, Liberian Law Services, in a seventh-floor office in downtown Washington, working mostly with Liberian offshore corporations and maritime concerns -- two of Liberia's most important business sectors. Though the companies and ships are based around the world, they have to answer to Liberian law, and Brumskine's expertise earned him good money.

A lifelong Methodist, he had started attending services with Estelle at an evangelical congregation, Bethel World Outreach in Alexandria, and was born again. On Saturdays they would have all-day get-togethers with his seven siblings and their families in the Washington area, starting with lunch and running straight through to dinner. Then there were the days when all of Charles and Estelle's kids were home from school, and they'd hit the lanes at Bowl America, or times when he and Estelle slipped off to the Poconos together -- times when Liberia might not have been foremost in his thoughts.

But "deep down," Estelle says, "I knew he wasn't finished with Liberia."

The way he describes it, Brumskine had failed to help the country in the way he'd hoped, and he hated to admit failure. The e-mail from Liberia, he says, came to him like a sign.

Soon a secret meeting between Brumskine and the FOBs was arranged in Ghana. He remained in Virginia for a time, putting together his basic platform and campaign strategy. In Liberia, the FOBs started to put his message on the street and created charity programs in Brumskine's name. If they could build a big enough groundswell of support, they reasoned, he would be better insulated from any threat of harm from Taylor. It was risky: They say they were harassed and even beaten by the authorities.

Finally, after four years in the United States, Brumskine returned to Liberia in January 2003. Though the election was still scheduled for the end of that year (it was later postponed until 2005), Taylor had a firm grip on power, and no one had challenged him for the presidency. Brumskine was the first. Reports describe crowds lining the road from Roberts Airport to downtown Monrovia -- some 40 miles -- cheering, waving palm fronds, some chanting, "Hail Brumskine, son of God!"

Today in Liberia, enthusiastic supporters still turn out to see Brumskine, but some of that zeal has waned. Gibson Jerue is news editor of the Liberian newspaper the Analyst, which named Brumskine its "Opinion Leader of the Year 2004" but has also published articles scathingly critical of him. Jerue is one of many, from seasoned election watchers to Monrovia taxi drivers, who believe Brumskine will be one of the top finishers in the election -- the field is too wide open for anyone to confidently pick a favorite, and a runoff is planned if no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote. But Jerue also notes Brumskine's flaws. "He was not able to change Taylor," he says, "and the momentum with which Brumskine came [in 2003] is not the same now."

Some things have changed since Brum-skine first returned for the election. Most important, he's no longer running against Taylor. Rebels opposed to Taylor had kept the war smoldering in the northwest part of the country, and by 2003 they were ready to choke off the capital. A series of offensives that summer, known to the locals as World Wars I, II and III, finally pushed the international community to engineer Taylor's exit. That August, as part of a peace agreement, he was granted asylum in Nigeria; since October 2003, Liberia has been governed by interim leader Gyude Bryant. Now Brum-

skine, instead of trying to set himself apart from one iconic man -- Taylor -- must try to separate himself and his newly formed United Democratic Party from a field of dozens. At last count there were 43 candidates; the other serious contenders range from former World Bank official Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to George Weah, an international soccer star.

One thing that hasn't changed in Liberia, though, is the scary potential for violence. At a tour stop on the second day of Brumskine's October trip, an angry young man in a green "05" jersey and long black denim shorts heckled a few FOBs from a hill above their cars, as Brumskine collected another plate of rice and kola nuts elsewhere in the village. The man's friends had a good laugh as he berated the befuddled and stammering campaign staffers. He cried out that they'd been lied to before.

"If the next president tries it, we'll kill him."

It was a cold day outside Springfield Mall, 60 degrees colder than it was in Liberia, on a January Saturday when snowflakes wet the roads. Nineteen-year-old Walker Brumskine was on the most American of quests. He was home from college for the weekend after winter exams, and he was looking for the perfect pair of bluejeans.

The Gap just might have the magic formula, in the relaxed fit with a boot cut. Did his mother like the way these looked?

"Not particularly," said Estelle. "But I'm not the one who's going to be wearing them."

Eventually he sided with her, and they moved on through the mall, packed with families looking to spend some money or do a little window shopping. Midway through his sophomore year, Walker was already looking forward to the summer. As he strolled the mall, his cell phone brought news from a Harvard classmate zeroing in on an internship with a high-powered investment firm. Walker has similar summer plans, though he may try to fit in a trip to Liberia, too.

A summer immersion program in Liberia could be a real eye-opener. He's not spent much time there in many years, and his strongest memory of the place is his third birthday party. Most Liberians his age would have trouble remembering working light switches and running water, both of which stopped functioning around the time the Brumskine kids left.

Charles Brumskine often says that he's driven to remake Liberia for his children, but it becomes obvious he's not talking about Charlyne, Charles and Walker. He's talking about the children and young adults he sees on the campaign trail, with little food to eat and no schools or teachers.

A rifle is the only authority figure many of those children have grown up with. There are more than 860,000 Liberian refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations, most in expansive camps across Liberia, and resettlement has not yet begun in all of the country's 15 counties. The United Nations reports that it has demobilized more than 95,000 warriors, including 26,000 women and children, but recovered only one rifle for every three combatants, fueling fears of massive weapons caches left in the bush. The U.N. World Food Program estimates it will assist nearly 1 million Liberians in 2005, or about one-third of the entire population.

Pick an indicator, and Liberia is struggling: According to U.N. figures, the life expectancy is 41.4 years, the unemployment rate is the world's worst at 85 percent, the adult literacy rate is 57.5 percent, and the per capita GDP is just $1,000 -- this in a country of substantial natural wealth. U.N. sanctions put in place during the Taylor regime still ban exports of Liberian diamonds and timber. The only thing the country seems to be flush with is presidential hopefuls.

The U.N.-sponsored peace agreement and influx of peacekeeping troops have established relative order and buoyed hopes for the first time in years. Still, the mandate of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has indicted Taylor for crimes against humanity, expires at the end of the year. If Nigeria doesn't turn him over to the court by then -- as the United States has pressed the Nigerian president to do -- some worry that Taylor will engineer a return.

At each campaign stop, Brumskine talks about wanting to fix this place for the next generation, and wanting to remake Liberia under the rule of law. He says he'll provide a forum for both the "victims and violators" in human rights cases to tell their stories and facilitate reconciliation. He says he wants to rebuild the country's water, sewer, electrical and transportation services; jump-start medical care with a small fleet of mobile clinics; institute the 11-hour school day; and create opportunities for Liberian businessmen. It's a long and costly list. Brum-skine says that if he becomes president, the money to accomplish his goals will come in. "Once we can convince the world that we are on the right path," he says, the sanctions will be lifted. But that won't happen overnight. And even with the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid pledged by the United States and other nations, Liberia has a long way to go to get back on track.

Brumskine, like every other candidate, is going to have an uphill battle to convince voters that he's not just in the race out of greed and personal ambition -- because he can "smell the elephant meat," as Liberians say.

"There are a few around who will say, 'Oh yeah, he just wants power,' " says Brumskine. "I've been in the position where I've had power -- naked, raw power. I was there in Taylor's government when I could have said, 'Kill this man,' and no one would have questioned me. But, by the grace of God, I did not abuse the power."

Just starting to relax one evening last fall in his temporary home not far from the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Brumskine shed his jacket and tie and forsook his dress shoes for an elegant pair of slippers. His wife was coming to visit soon, and he worried that Estelle wouldn't like the quarters. The place had a faint mildewy odor, and it almost seemed more like an office than a home, with its bright lighting and plain white walls. But it was secure, with a guard posted at the tall, wire- and spike-topped steel gate and few windows.

The young woman who looked after the house set a bowl in front of him and removed the plate covering it to reveal crabs in a spicy pepper broth. Very much at home now, he took whole legs and large chunks of shell in his mouth and pulverized the meat out of them.

Coming in from a day at his law office, he'd had one last meeting before dinner, with a man offering an army of "prayer warriors," who would pray for Brumskine 24 hours a day throughout the campaign. Brumskine had agreed.

"I have to be careful how I talk about this stuff to people of the world, because some people just don't understand it," he explained over the meal. He said he had been called to the Liberian presidency. "This is something that God wants to do in this country, and he's going to empower me, and he's going to provide the wisdom and the wherewithal for us to change this country."

"None of these things are done with my own strength," he said. "Some will say, 'Oh, you were very brave -- you came home when Taylor was here.' No, I wasn't brave. I was scared like hell, you know, but I came knowing that the Lord was going to protect me and nothing was going to happen with me."

On the table next to him sat a Bible, the remote control for the air conditioner and five framed pictures -- one each of his wife, mother, daughter and older son, and, in a heavy gold frame, a group snapshot he cherishes of himself with Bill Clinton at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, snapped as the two men passed each other at a hotel entrance. As he chatted and ate, one of the two cell phones on the table rang, and he grabbed it.

"Hi, Mommy," he cooed to Estelle in the States. "I put a contract on your house today," he told her excitedly.

Brumskine wants their old house -- her dream house, the one they were almost ready to move into when the war began in 1989 -- to be ready by the time she comes home to Liberia this summer, after their daughter Charlyne's wedding in Virginia this Saturday. Estelle knows it'll be time to go home. She misses the people, the more easygoing pace. She needs to be there to support her husband's campaign. But she won't be selling the townhouse in Alexandria just yet.

"Love you," he said into the phone before clicking it off and crunching another bit of peppered crab.

Well outside Monrovia, miles east of the city, out past the beach overlooks, past countless stands selling bananas, oranges, charcoal, phone cards or gasoline, past the Dominion Christian Center and its billboard -- DAILY PRAYER FOR ELECTIONS 2005 . . . GOD PLEASE GIVE US YOUR CHOICE LEADER FOR LIBERIA IN JESUS NAME -- past Musu's Uni Sex Boutique and Full Service Bar, past the U.N. headquarters strung with concertina wire and stocked with white Land Rovers, down a rutted dirt road alternately lined with piles of trash and fields of rice, past tin shacks and houses in various states of repair and disrepair, Charles Brumskine visited his wife's dream house.

It was a large stone-and-marble home with three bedrooms, a spacious kitchen, several sitting areas and a generous master suite. In 1989, the furnishings Estelle had so carefully picked out in the United States had already been delivered, and the shipping containers sat in the yard. The only people who got to open them were looters.

Brumskine now walked through the house with his dress pants puffing out of the tops of his galoshes, with his builder Joseph Merchant by his side. They counted the windows that remained (many did not) and checked for structural damage (there was very little). They'd have to add security bars to the windows once they were replaced. Now and then, they stopped and chatted about adding sliding doors or new columns, and Brumskine started visionary sentences with, "What I'd like to do here . . ."

But the men were not alone. Everywhere they went they were shadowed by the people who had been living in the house for the last nine years. They represented about a dozen families, maybe 50 men, women and children, and they had taken over the house completely. They had deftly boarded up the kitchen to form one apartment and partitioned the master bedroom with palm-frond mats. Their leader, a man with white hair, a white T-shirt and a young wife, said he had moved in when the owner of the house where he'd squatted previously had returned home, and he'd even been collecting rent from the other families in the Brumskines' house. He walked behind the two men holding a clipboard, hanging on their words. By now, the families had been there long enough to grow crops of corn, cassava and cucumbers in the front yard.

As Brumskine and Merchant made their tour, an unattended baby cried in one room and a duck waddled through another. Starchy steam rose from a pot of rice sitting atop a small charcoal grill in the master bedroom. A thick layer of dirt and sand covered the floor in the master bath, and laundry hung across nearly every room. The house was hardly touched during the war -- Merchant guessed that a couple of stray bullets might have put the holes in a leaky roof -- but the squatters were the war's real legacy.

People fleeing the brutal fighting in the bush swelled Monrovia, once a sleepy town, past capacity, and now the housing crunch is on. Here's the challenge in the Liberia Brumskine wants to lead: Virtually every home, business, institution, man, woman and child needs a fairly serious reclamation project. Where do you even start?

The squatters desperately wanted to stay, but Brumskine reminded them that he'd given them a year's warning, and time was up. They petitioned him again and again, and one young man called him "Mr. President" to curry favor. Or because he was confused.

"Don't tell me the war affected you," Brumskine said, exasperated. "It affected me, too. If there hadn't been war, I'd be sleeping in this house now." He made a final offer of 500 Liberian dollars to each family that left before the end of the week. It was a tiny sum -- just 10 U.S. dollars -- but represented a first month's rent in a small apartment.

They stared blankly, quietly, as Brum-

skine and Merchant bade each other farewell and climbed into their SUVs. Some of the squatters may have been wondering where they'd go. At least one of them may have been wondering why the president just kicked them out of their home -- and where, in God's name, he was taking the country.

Jonathan Ernst is a freelance photojournalist based in Washington and was a 2001 fellow in the International Reporting Project.