LOS ANGELES - Gore campaign officials moved swiftly yesterday to stamp out a potential brush fire of black voter discontent with Al Gore's running mate, dispatching Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman to personally "clarify" his positions on affirmative action and private school vouchers.
Lieberman, along with Gore's African-American campaign manager, Donna Brazile, and two black Cabinet members, Alexis M. Herman and Rodney Slater, descended on a meeting of the Democratic Party's black caucus to make the case that Lieberman has been sympathetic to their causes since 1963, when he helped register black voters in Mississippi.
The effort appeared to succeed, at least with one key black Democrat, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who had previously questioned Lieberman's commitment to core issues important to blacks.
"He has said enough," Waters said after Lieberman publicly affirmed his support for affirmative action and vowed to follow Gore's lead on such issues as school vouchers. "He has done enough, and he has demonstrated his willingness to deal with the issues of concern to the black community."
The Gore campaign's show of force was impressive. But for Democrats, it was a troubling sign that the Gore-Lieberman ticket must still shore up its liberal base of support, even as it appeals to moderate swing voters who will likely decide the election against Gov. George W. Bush.
"When Maxine Waters said she was willing to campaign enthusiastically for the ticket, it meant they've got a powerful ally," said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist with close ties to black Democratic leaders. "But they've just raised the price for African-American [voter] turnout," Walters added, suggesting that the Gore campaign might have to "sell" Lieberman as more of a liberal.
The Gore team has been thrown on the defensive about issues in which Lieberman and the vice president differ, from the age of Medicare eligibility to publicly funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Should Lieberman tack to the left to satisfy the Democratic Party's liberal wing, he risks alienating precisely the moderate voters his nomination was intended to help capture.
The brush fire among African-American Democrats was sparked Sunday when Waters, at a rally in South-Central Los Angeles, raised questions about Lieberman's record on affirmative action, criminal justice and school vouchers.
Herman, the Clinton administration's labor secretary, summoned Waters from a meeting of the party's black caucus yesterday morning. Herman was joined by Slater, the transportation secretary, in a very public full-court press for Waters' support.
Even after that show of force, Waters was balking.
"I would seriously sit out an election if in fact the issues that I have worked on all my life are undermined," she declared.
But after Lieberman took to the podium in a hotel ballroom here to issue a personal appeal for black support, the firebrand lawmaker pronounced herself content.
Gore's choice of Lieberman as his running mate has helped the vice president narrow Bush's lead in the polls. Lieberman's centrist politics appeal to moderate voters, and his reputation for moral probity - cemented by his early, scathing denunciation of President Clinton's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair - could help separate Gore from the taint of scandal that hangs over the administration.
But the selection of Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, unsettled some in the African-American community. The Dallas branch president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was forced to resign Aug. 10, after he questioned the choice of Lieberman, asserting that blacks should be "suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level because we know that their interest primarily has to do with money."
Waters and other black politicians raised more substantive questions, especially about Lieberman's support for affirmative action. Lieberman has said he does not support affirmative action programs that involve mandatory quotas. And in 1995, when Californians were considering whether to ban all state-funded race- or gender-based preference programs, he said of the proposed ban on preferences, "I can't see how I could be opposed to it."
Yesterday, in his first public appearance since arriving in Los Angeles after midnight, he sought to explain that statement to black party activists.
As Lieberman recalled, a reporter had asked him about the California proposition at the time it was pending, and he first replied that he did not know enough about it to take a position. But when the reporter read him the proposition, which stated "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group," Lieberman told black party activists that he responded, "That sounds like a basic statement of human rights policy."