WASHINGTON - In picking as his running mate an Orthodox Jew, a political centrist, and a senator among the first Democrats to call President Clinton's personal behavior immoral, Vice President Gore has taken a bold but risky step.
By all accounts, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is a stand-up politician hailed for impeccable integrity, a 58-year-old who has been in Washington for nearly a dozen years and has as many close friends who are Republicans as those who are Democrats.
But for Mr. Gore, down 17 points behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush in weekend polling after the boost from the GOP convention last week, Mr. Lieberman will not deliver any crucial swing state such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Michigan. Connecticut generally has voted Democratic in presidential elections.
If the Nov. 7 election is close, as most political analysts expect, some worry that what Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) calls "latent anti-Semitism'' could be enough to tip the balance to Mr. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney.
"I think that there is latent anti-Semitism that is just below the surface in a lot of quarters. I think it's a problem for Jewish candidates. It is overcomeable, but it will cost several points in the polls,'' said Mr. Specter, who is Jewish and a close friend of Mr. Lieberman's.
Mr. Lieberman is not known as a dynamic speaker and sometimes comes across as preachy. This could reinforce the perception that Gore-Lieberman is a dull ticket. He will not actively campaign or travel from sundown Friday until the end of the Jewish sabbath on Saturday nights.
While he supports abortion rights, gun control, and opposes broad tax cuts, Mr. Lieberman has a reputation as a man in the middle, a bridge-builder who likes to bring about consensus. Americans say they are tired of bickering in Washington. His experience in the Senate means that many voters could come to see him as presidential, although he is not well-known.
His moderate voting record, including his support of school vouchers, is not likely to win over wavering liberals. The Bush campaign's "talking points'' on Mr. Lieberman urge Republicans to note: "From Social Security reform to missile defense, tort reform to parental notification, and from school choice to affirmative action, Al Gore has chosen a man whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush's than to his own.''
This could be important because Mr. Gore has firm support from only 70 per cent of likely Democratic voters, while Mr. Bush has 92 per cent of Republicans locked up. In choosing Mr. Cheney, a solid conservative, Mr. Bush solidified his support among the religious right. Mr. Gore has yet to figure out how to firm up Democratic support.
Mr. Lieberman's vehement speeches against Mr. Clinton's behavior with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky could make Mr. Gore look as if he chose Mr. Lieberman as an antidote to fears of being tarnished by Mr. Clinton. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., O.) said that Mr. Lieberman's "reasoned and eloquent'' speech on the Senate floor condemning Mr. Clinton is a problem for Mr. Gore because over the next several weeks "he has to explain why his opinion of what Clinton was doing was different from what Lieberman was saying on the Senate floor.''
On the other hand, Mr. Lieberman did not vote to convict Mr. Clinton on impeachment charges. And while Mr. Gore did say on the day the House impeached Mr. Clinton that he was one of America's great presidents, the Vice President has said repeatedly that he was extremely upset and disappointed by the President's behavior.
Because Mr. Lieberman will be the first Jew on a major party's presidential ticket, Mr. Gore will score points for thinking "out of the box.'' Although Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman are four white males in their 50s, inevitable comparisons will be made about Democrats 40 years ago, also in Los Angeles, nominating John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president.
Polls are unreliable on religious bias - few people would be expected to say they are anti-Semitic, but the Gallup Organization says 92 per cent of Americans asked last year said they would have no problem voting for a Jewish candidate for president. Mr. Gore was asked by ABC News on Friday about bias and said, "I don't think those old distinctions and categories matter these days, the way they did in the past. I think we've grown as a nation.''
Mr. Lieberman has been a strong advocate of campaign finance reform, which could hurt Mr. Gore as Republicans compare the senator's comments with Mr. Gore's appearance at the Buddhist Temple and numerous White House fund-raisers. Mr. Gore, however, has pledged to push for campaign finance reform if elected.
Mr. Gore's choice of Mr. Lieberman is, in some sense, a page out of Mr. Clinton's strategy book. Mr. Lieberman is influential in the Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate wing of the party, which Mr. Clinton helped form. The choice of Mr. Lieberman shows that Mr. Gore intends to appeal to the center of the American electorate and promises to govern in the middle, which is the strategy Mr. Clinton used to get elected in 1992. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore accused then-President Bush of endorsing "the failed policies of the past'' while they emphasized fiscal discipline.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney indicated in their acceptance speeches that they intend to try to tie Mr. Gore to Mr. Clinton whenever they can by pledging to restore "dignity'' to the White House. The choice of Mr. Lieberman may defuse that effort.
While Mr. Clinton's personal favorability is low, his job approval is still high. The question is whether American voters, will credit Mr. Gore with partial responsibility for economic prosperity but separate him from so-called "Clinton fatigue."
For more than a year Mr. Lieberman has been linked with William Bennett, GOP activist and author of "The Book of Virtues, in a crusade for civility and against moral degeneracy in society. Mr. Gore's aides say Mr. Lieberman's clear credibility on the need to return to basic values will make it more difficult for Republicans to attack Democrats for the country's moral lapses.
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