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Lieberman brings integrity, decency

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 2000


It's Lieberman

Were Graham's prospects more publicity than reality?

WASHINGTON -- Joe Lieberman was not chosen to join the Democratic ticket for his charisma. It would be hard to imagine that anyone could be inspired by his deadpan speaking style or his flat, whiny voice.

Nor was the Connecticut senator picked to run for vice president because he is an ideological soul mate of Democratic standard-bearer Al Gore. In fact, the two men strongly disagree on a variety of issues, including education and missile defense.

But Lieberman, a centrist and a devout Jew, has something that Gore needs much more than a slick delivery or a clever position paper. He brings moral authority and conviction to a Democratic ticket.

Putting it bluntly, he has the integrity that Gore seems to lack. Where Gore appears to be a man who will do anything to be elected, Lieberman has a reputation for rejecting politically expedient compromises.

When word leaked out Monday that Gore had decided to tap Lieberman as his running mate, even the opposition was impressed. Republicans called it a smart choice. As they see it, Lieberman helps Gore to blunt George W. Bush's highly effective pledge to restore integrity and decency to the Oval Office after President Clinton's scandal-ridden tenure.

The prime example of Lieberman's moral rectitude, of course, was his decision to be the first Democrat to condemn President Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"Such behavior is not just inappropriate," he said, "It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family, particularly to our children."

By selecting Lieberman, Gore is not only trying to put more distance between himself and Clinton's behavior, he is also implicitly pledging to mend his own ways when it comes to campaign finance abuses. In essence, he is saying that if elected, he would be willing to govern with an outspoken scold sitting at his elbow.

Perhaps the only way the high moral stands of Gore's running mate might hurt the ticket is if Republicans can craft an effective television ad showing that Gore -- unlike Lieberman -- did not speak out against Clinton.

Lieberman has other strengths as well.

As the first Jew ever chosen for a national ticket, he is certain to energize the Jewish vote in the important battleground states of Florida, California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Although his candidacy could stir up some anti-Semitism in the electorate -- perhaps in the Midwest, where the Jewish population is smaller -- about 90 percent of voters tell pollsters they would vote for a Jewish candidate.

Even Republicans were forced to admit that by choosing Lieberman, Gore underscored his commitment to ethnic diversity -- an issue that the GOP has recently tried to wrest away from the Democrats. And while some Christian voters might disagree with Lieberman's religious views, many are likely to admire him for his strict adherence to his faith.

Independent pollster John Zogby said voters who might be biased against a Jewish candidate would probably not vote for a Democrat anyway. "People who are going to have a problem with that aren't going to vote for a party with a strong civil rights record and support for gay rights," he said.

Lieberman's centrist views also could widen the appeal of the Democratic ticket, making it more palatable to those independent voters who have been turned off by Gore's old-fashioned liberalism and class warfare themes.

Yet critics question how Gore intends to resolve his policy differences with Lieberman. On the issue of education reform, for example, Lieberman supports giving vouchers to students to attend a school of their choice. Gore opposes vouchers.

"The first debate that Gore's got to get through is not the one with Bush, it's the one with Lieberman," said GOP pollster David Winston. "I don't know what kind of message Gore is trying to send."

Zogby noted that Gore himself cannot risk moving to the center as long as Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is threatening to rob him of a substantial percentage of labor union and liberal votes. The pollster said the choice of Lieberman should be viewed as an effort by Gore to plant himself both in the liberal and the centrist camps.

Democrats feel confident that Lieberman will represent them ably in a debate with GOP vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney. Unlike Cheney, whose political skills have gotten a little rusty during eight years in private life, Lieberman is thought to be at the top of his game.

Yet neither Lieberman nor Cheney are known for their rhetorical skills. For most television viewers, a debate between them would likely have the same effect as a strong dose of sleeping pills.

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