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Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar, 5763

Roger Simon

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Dem frontrunner Lieberman seems to have a serious sprain | "Some people give off lightning," Matt Lieberman, Joe's son, likes to say. "Some give off a warm, steady glow."

And if warm and steady win the race, Joe Lieberman certainly has a chance for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But some believe Lieberman, the junior senator from Connecticut, needs a bit more: perhaps an actual spark or two, like the ones he showed at the ABC debate in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday. It was there Lieberman gave his best public performance to date and got some good stories.

And good stories is something he has been lacking.

At the beginning of his flirtation with the presidency, there was every reason to believe Lieberman would be doing better than he currently is, at least with the chattering class that dominates political discussion this early in the campaign season.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, Lieberman is the only candidate in the crowded field of nine who has run on a national ticket. In that campaign, he got largely good reviews and showed himself to be a prodigious fund-raiser. And untainted by personal or professional scandal, he seemed well-positioned for a presidential race.

But he has caught few breaks: Lieberman had to wait for months until the Hamlet of Carthage, Al Gore, decided he would not run again, Lieberman's fund raising has impressed few and Lieberman's religion -- he is the first "observant" Jew to run for president -- which so captivated the media last time around, this time is being viewed in a more critical light.

"Lieberman Has Yet to Electrify Key Backers," headlined the Hartford Courant, which described Lieberman's first quarter 2003 fund-raising total of $3 million as "dismal" and said "there is clearly some dissatisfaction with Lieberman in the Jewish community."

"He's got three problems," says David Lightman, the Courant's Washington bureau chief and longtime Lieberman watcher. "The Jewish community tends to be very liberal, and Lieberman has taken moderate positions Jews are annoyed with, such as support for school vouchers. Second, a lot of analysts have told me that while the Jewish community is proud he ran for vice president, the glow is over and a lot of other candidates in the race have close ties to the Jewish community. Third, a lot of older Jews worry that the presence of a prominent Jew helps stoke anti-Semitism in this country."

While Lieberman insists he has never personally experienced anti-Semitism either while growing up or on the campaign trail, one of the more unappetizing phenomena of his last race was that in some areas of northern Florida there were a number of Gore/Cheney write-ins, generally thought to be a rejection of Lieberman because of his religion.

There is also dramatic evidence that somebody does not currently like him: Lieberman is the only Democratic candidate who is accompanied by security wherever he goes in public. Even on cross-country campaign trips, Capitol Hill Police officers accompany him because of threats on his life, and one stood only a few feet away from him while Lieberman met with reporters in the "spin room" following the ABC debate.

The good news for him, at least politically, is that Lieberman continues to lead in national polling among Democrats. A Gallup poll released last week shows Lieberman leading second-place John Kerry of Massachusetts by 6 percentage points and third-place Dick Gephardt of Missouri by 8. A just-released Washington Post/ABC News polls also shows Lieberman in first place.

These polls get little publicity, however, for two reasons: Few in the media believe it reflects anything but name recognition, and few see where Lieberman is going to win in the critical first contests.

Many buy into the "Good Neighbors" theory in which those who win come from bordering states: Gephardt wins Iowa, Kerry wins New Hampshire, and John Edwards of North Carolina wins South Carolina. But Lieberman's campaign sees advantages to such thinking.

Campaign director Craig T. Smith describes those first three contests as "near death" experiences for the favorites: If any fails to meet expectations, he may be declared DOA.

Lieberman has no such expectations to meet. And joining the South Carolina primary on Feb. 3 are two states -- Oklahoma and Arizona -- where Lieberman is campaigning hard.

"On Feb. 3, we have to win someplace," Smith told me. "We have to win a couple of those states."

Smith says Lieberman will do it not with flash and pizzazz, but by virtue of his "integrity, his knowing where he wants to lead the country and his sense of mission."

Others, however, see a rocky road ahead. "The fact that his people point to Arizona and Oklahoma reflects a paucity of opportunities for him," says independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "Plus everybody still wonders how Lieberman's long-term (moderate) record sells in a party where organized teachers, organized labor and liberals in general are so significant."

Michael Feldman, formerly a senior adviser to Al Gore and now with the Glover Park Group, a communications consulting firm, says Lieberman actually starts the race with an advantage.

"He is a senior U.S. senator with impeccable credentials on issues that matter both domestically and internationally," he says. "That gets him over the 'Is he capable of the job?' question with the public. Lieberman comes to the table with that. Some candidates in this race are new faces still trying to get over that hurdle."

The media can also turn around quickly. Gephardt, whose chances were being questioned just a few months ago, is experiencing a mini-renaissance in the press, getting considerable praise for a bold health care plan and new-found passion in his speeches.

And while boldness and passion were not often evident in the early stages of the Lieberman campaign, this could be changing.

"This is the right moment; I am the leader America needs now," Lieberman told me.

"Of all the Democratic candidates, I am the only one who can stand toe to toe with George W. Bush on his perceived strengths -- defense and moral values -- and I can defeat him where he is weak: on the economy and his divisive right-wing social agenda. This is the story I will tell the American people."

Whether the American people are listening this early is an open question, but when you're a "steady glow" candidate, you need all the time you can get.

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