It was election eve in South Korea, and underdog candidate Roh Moo Hyun was at his third of five political rallies for the day, before a crowd outside a department store. He climbed the rostrum to speak, a short, square man with a creased forehead and a huge grin.

Even at the end of an exhausting campaign, he was clearly enjoying himself. The former labor and human rights activist marveled at how far he had come, and what it meant for the country. "Before, if you had no money and no power, you couldn't even run for political office," he said. Then he added confidently: "Now we are about to elect someone who had neither one."

It is a favorite theme for Roh, 56, who will be sworn in as president Tuesday. His is a poor-boy-makes-good story of perseverance that he likes to compare to the life of Abraham Lincoln.

Like Lincoln, he takes office as storm clouds are gathering. North Korea's efforts to build nuclear weapons have generated strong words between North Korea and the United States. South Koreans have staged repeated demonstrations against the U.S. military forces that have protected the country for 53 years. And a once roaring economy is showing signs of faltering.

For the Bush administration, the biggest question is Roh's foreign policy agenda.

Roh has refused to sign on to the White House's hard line against North Korea. He rejects the use of military force in the dispute and once suggested that South Korea would not automatically side with the United States in hostilities with the North. He has promised to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, "without conditions." And he has promoted himself as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea -- though both have spurned the offer.

During his years as an activist, he was often in league with groups that assailed the United States. Roh once urged the ouster of U.S. forces, and his presidential campaign rose on a tide of anti-American resentment.

Today he says his views have changed. Since his victory in December, Roh has tried to smooth over the differences, visiting U.S. troops and paying respects to the American sacrifices for South Korea. "He's not anti-American," said a top aide, Lee Hae Chan. "Time and time again, Roh has been stating the need for the U.S. to maintain its forces here."

Roh is a new breed of politician for South Korea. He is a populist and a garrulous campaigner. Many people in the establishment see his charm and informal style as an attempt to sugarcoat a zealous domestic agenda, including a redistribution of income and attacks on the family dynasties behind big conglomerates.

"His past political career is simply radical student movements," fretted a conservative opponent, Kim Mahn Je, an assemblyman from the Grand National Party. "He's said and done so many radical things . . . he's making the whole country nervous about the future of Korea."

"People think Roh's just a rugby ball with no direction. And he's vulgar," said an old-line politician in Seoul who asked not to be named. "A lot of conservatives think he will donate this country to Kim Jong Il."

Critics say his views toward the United States illustrate the inexperience of a man who has rarely traveled abroad and never to the United States. His defenders say it demonstrates the moral rectitude he has shown throughout his career.

Roh was born Aug. 6, 1946, the youngest of four children, to a poor farm family in a village near the city of Pusan in the rural southeast. His eldest brother went to a university, but to save money for his family, Roh went to a vocational high school. After graduating, he got a job with a fishnet maker, but soon realized his pay did not cover room and board. So he went back to his home town and studied law.

In 1977, after finishing his military service and marrying his village sweetheart, Kwon Yang Sook, he passed the bar exam. That was an impressive feat. The exam, which functions as a key to the upper echelons of South Korean society, is extraordinarily tough. With that out of the way, he opened a law firm and briefly practiced tax law.

By his account, his involvement with the democracy movement that confronted the country's entrenched military rule began in 1981. He was asked to represent students in a book club who were arrested, tortured and charged with studying leftist theories. Their ordeal "infuriated me," Roh said.

Moon Jae In, his old law partner in Pusan, said that a few years later, "he told me he was going to go on the road with the democratic and social movement. He said the life of a lawyer is very bourgeois, and he regretted living that kind of life." Roh took a lower salary from his partnership and stopped using the firm's car.

Roh soon became a common sight at labor union actions, which were the center of the anti-government campaign. In 1987, he was arrested and jailed for 23 days during a protest at a shipyard. In time, he entered elective politics, joining the blossoming political parties of the country's two most prominent activists, Kim Young Sam and later Kim Dae Jung.

He was, by his own account, an "embarrassing" politician, running six times for various offices and winning only two terms in parliament. His fans have turned his defeats into legends of political courage in which Roh tilted at a political machine based on long, bitter social and economic rivalries between eastern and western provinces. Roh describes them more as a series of political miscalculations and misfortunes.

While awaiting the results of an ill-fated parliamentary campaign in 2000, Roh said, he picked up a book that included Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech, and recalls being thunderstruck at Lincoln's call for reconciliation "with malice toward none, charity for all."

Roh compared the moment of "thrilling inspiration" to Mohandas Gandhi being thrown out of a segregated railcar or Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. "I began to see the world in a different way," he says in a glossy 49-page account, quickly published by the Korea Information Service after the election, labeled "Roh Moo Hyun's encounter with Abraham Lincoln."

"He and I had many things in common," Roh asserts in the volume. Both were from poor families, studied alone to become country lawyers and faltered in politics before becoming president.

The new president's administration will be liberally peopled by political idealists, not veteran operators. Kim Man Soo, 39, is typical. He was in the thick of pro-democracy student demonstrations in the mid-1980s, and debated with his friends whether to wage rebellion from inside or outside the system. Kim chose the former, and latched onto Roh as the most promising politician for that strategy.

Now a deputy in Roh's press office, Kim still sounds pretty revolutionary when discussing his aspirations for the new administration. "Of course, our society is at a time where we need to change," he said. Roh's politics "will be a process of eliminating the privileges of the privileged and elite. . . . Our society has grown and certain groups have accumulated wealth by bypassing legalities. We are trying to eliminate that."

Roh has signaled that he plans major shake-ups. To fulfill his promises of equality for women, for example, Roh has asked his transition staff to draw up plans to create affirmative action programs, quotas for public and private hiring, and a vast increase in the country's child-care system, at a potential cost of billions of dollars.

"He said, don't be hostage to the budget. He will use whatever money he needs," said Chung Young Ai, who is in charge of women's issues on his transition staff. "He's not trying to change little by little. He believes in an overhaul."

South Korea's economic giants, family-run conglomerates called chaebol, are particularly worried by the former labor activist. Roh has promised to reduce the power of the families, stiffen their inheritance taxes, stop shadowy transactions within companies, and open the corporations to class-action lawsuits by other stockholders. Roh talks of wealth redistribution, a scary term to the moneyed class.

"There are concerns in the chaebol boardrooms," said Namuh Rhee, who heads an independent capital management company in Seoul. "It's created a lot of uncertainties in the business community and helped take the stock market down."

But analysts note Roh will hardly have a free hand. The parliament is controlled by the conservative opposition party, sympathetic to business and suspicious of dramatic reforms. "Whether he likes it or not, he has to work with the conservatives and the business people," said Hyung Kook Kim, director of the Center for Asian Studies at American University in Washington.

Roh's admirers say he will win over opponents with his personality. He has a Clintonesque affinity for people and for long discussions that bedevil his schedule. Supporters describe him as honest and full of integrity, qualities not normally ascribed to Korean politicians. "The problem is he is too honest," said Kim One Ki, a veteran assemblyman and political mentor to Roh. "He has a tendency to say things when they come to his mind."

Roh's people seem to be enjoying stepping into positions of authority they had seen mostly from afar on protest lines. Moon, Roh's old law partner and still a close friend, tells of Roh being given a suite in Pusan's swankiest hotel after his election, and wandering around in amazement, opening one closet after another.

"Now," Roh murmured to Moon, "I really feel like a president."

Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.

Roh carries a flower Thursday to an altar for victims of last week's subway fire. Roh Moo Hyun and his wife, Kwon Yang Sook, celebrate his victory in the Dec. 19 presidential election. Roh will be sworn in on Tuesday.