Commentary: The Lieberman Effect: How Big a Boost?

George W. Bush may have tried to paint Al Gore as too cautious to lead. But it was the Vice-President and not the Texas governor who took the bigger risk in his choice of a running mate. In making Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman the first Jew on a major-party ticket, Gore took a giant leap into the political unknown. But while Lieberman received rave reviews from Democrats and Republicans alike, and his Aug. 8 selection sent Gore rocketing in the polls, it remains to be seen whether the 58-year-old senator will ultimately make a difference--for better or for worse--in what many analysts expect to be a very close election.

One obvious nagging fear among Democrats: the potential for a hidden undercurrent of anti-Semitism to siphon critical votes away from the Gore-Lieberman ticket in key swing states. ''It's a wild card,'' says Ira R. Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. ''I don't think it's there, but you'll never know for sure.'' And while only 6% of Americans tell pollsters they would never vote for a Jew for President, some pros think the number is almost certainly higher. ''Never underestimate the intolerance of the American people,'' says independent pollster Dick Bennett.

Particularly worrisome are the lingering tensions between the heavily Democratic African American and Jewish communities. While Lieberman was a civil rights worker in the South in the Sixties and his selection won praise from prominent black leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, his candidacy has already attracted a few stray ethnic slurs. In Bush's home state, Lee Alcorn, the head of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP, told a radio station that there was a ''need to be very suspicious'' of Jews like Lieberman because ''we know that their interest primarily has to do with money.'' Kweisi Mfume, national president of the NAACP, immediately condemned Alcorn, and called for his suspension.

Still, the random remarks and fears have not blinded Democrats to the benefits that Lieberman has already brought to a Presidential candidate who had been trailing his Republican opponent for six months. Among Lieberman's assets:

The moral shield. Lieberman, a former Connecticut attorney general, is known as ''the conscience of the Senate,'' even though at times his colleagues concede he can be a bit sanctimonious. The first Democrat to denounce President Clinton's personal conduct as ''immoral'' in the Monica Lewinsky case, he's a longtime crusader against sex and violence in popular culture. And, like Arizona Senator John McCain, he has denounced fund-raising abuses by both parties. ''It was a very smart move by the Democrats to offset the biggest negative that Gore has, which is the character issue,'' says conservative activist Brent Bozell, who has teamed up with Lieberman against the entertainment industry in the past.

Lieberman means business. The senator is generally considered moderate, bipartisan, and pro-business--the perfect match for critical independent swing voters. He's a big booster of the New Economy, pushing for freer trade, liberalized immigration, legal reform, a permanent research-and-development tax credit, and capital-gains tax cuts--positions that could make some liberal Democrats think twice about supporting him. ''He's a great pick,'' says Barry Rogstad, president of the American Business Conference. ''He understands how business works.''

Demographic delight. Most of the six million Jewish voters in the U.S. are concentrated in key swing states. If Lieberman's selection boosts normally high Jewish turnout of around 65% to more than 80%, it could prove pivotal in a close election in battlegrounds such as Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan. Typically 70% of the Jewish vote goes Democratic; Democratic strategists now estimate as much as 90% could go Gore-Lieberman.

Strong positives. An Aug. 7 Gallup Poll found that nearly four of five Americans who had formed an opinion of Lieberman viewed the two-term Democrat favorably. Like Richard B. Cheney on the GOP ticket, Lieberman adds an aura of gravitas to the Democratic team. Unlike Cheney, Lieberman actually elicits fewer overtly negative reactions among voters.

But Lieberman does have his downside. Among his foibles:
Charismatically challenged. Gore desperately needed an energetic partner to compensate for his leaden style. He won't necessarily find it in the plodding Lieberman--although Lieberman received high marks on his speech in Nashville on Aug. 8. ''He's articulate,'' says one Democratic ally, ''but he's not the most charismatic guy.'' What's more, Lieberman is ill-suited to the ''attack dog'' role usually reserved for the No. 2.

Potential liberal backlash. While Lieberman is sure to please centrists, he has alienated many liberals with his maverick voting record. In the past, he has championed welfare reform and military spending increases. He has voted for school voucher experiments and parental notification in the cases of teenager abortions. And his repeated criticism of the Hollywood culture leaves some LaLa Land Democrats nonplussed.

Still, most liberals feel they have nowhere else to go. ''The bigger issue here is what kind of a Supreme Court we will have in the next few years,'' says Steve Tisch, producer of films such as Forrest Gump and Risky Business. ''We're a lot more comfortable with Al Gore and Joe Lieberman making those decisions than we would be with George Bush and Dick Cheney.''

In the end, the imponderable of the upcoming campaign may be the question whether any No. 2 pick--no matter how inspired--can alter the balance. Lieberman may have done Gore an enormous service by helping to mitigate his Clinton problem. But it's the Gore problem that remains for Gore to solve.

By Richard S. Dunham and Howard Gleckman
Dunham is White House correspondent; Gleckman writes about economics.

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Team Gore's Dilemma

TABLE: The Gore Agenda

Commentary: The Lieberman Effect: How Big a Boost?

TABLE: Assessing the Impact

ONLINE ORIGINAL: Gore 2000 Chief William Daley Talks about the Campaign

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