Lieberman, with Gore undecided, eyes '04 run

Democrat presses themes of morality, faith, family

religion question looms

July 17, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. - As Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman plots what would be a trail-blazing run for president, a huge obstacle lies directly in his path: the man who put him in the history books two years ago.

Lieberman has campaigned in 21 states and raised $1.1 million since January. The first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket would like to become the first of his faith to make a serious try for the presidency.

"What I've seen so far would encourage me to go ahead," Lieberman said in a recent interview during a campaign-style trip through the early primary states of Louisiana and South Carolina.

But while his presidential effort gathers speed, there's a good chance it will never take off. Lieberman, 60, has pledged that he won't run if Al Gore, the man who picked him to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, enters the race.

Many Democrats are convinced that Gore will run, especially since President Bush seems more vulnerable than he did a few months ago. The former vice president has said that he hasn't decided and won't announce his plans until after the first of the year. But a former top official of his presidential campaign, who is in touch with him regularly, says Gore is "itching to run."

Lieberman, meanwhile, is receiving helpful suggestions on how he might wiggle out of his promise not to challenge Gore. He recently was handed a document, written by a rabbi, that offered Talmudic precedent for altering a pledge.

He insists he isn't looking for a loophole. "I think I did the right thing. It still feels right to me, and I'm not going to change my word," said the Connecticut senator, whose reputation for moral rectitude is central to his public image.

Last week, with no publicity, Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, had dinner at the Gores' home in Virginia. Except for a brief chat over coffee in April at a Florida political event, it was the first time the two halves of the Democratic ticket had been together since the election and its contentious aftermath.

"Double-dating once again," Lieberman joked, in disclosing that the dinner took place. He said he has not had much contact with Gore, beyond an occasional e-mail exchange.

Over the Fourth of July congressional recess, Lieberman said, he received an e-mail message from Gore, saying, "How would you two like to come over?"

"That was it," he recalled.

According to Lieberman, Gore isn't promising Lieberman that he would be his running mate if Gore runs again. And recent remarks by Gore - that he would try to run a different kind of campaign next time - could mean he wouldn't want to resurrect the 2000 ticket.

`I'm going ahead'

Lieberman said he came away from last week's dinner convinced that Gore is genuinely "undecided. He's 50-50" about running again.

"So I'm going ahead," the senator said. "Part of it is that I'm quite serious about [wanting to run], and part of it is that I want to be ready."

Beyond his ambition and his growing stack of speeches and position papers, Lieberman's assets as a presidential contender include the celebrity he gained in the last election and an ability to tap the pockets of Jewish donors around the country.

Competing in what he calls the "ideas primary" for attention from reporters and politicians, before the actual fight for delegates, he's pressing his party on moral themes and demanding a renewed emphasis on such traditional values as "faith, family, patriotism, tolerance and hard work."

He's among the most hawkish Democrats on military issues. He was an early, vocal supporter of Bush's expressed desire to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He has also been the president's most prominent Democratic partner in advocating government funding for religious groups.

His centrist philosophy could be a potential help - if he makes it to the general election. In the primaries, where liberals have disproportionate influence, it might hurt.

With corporate misbehavior and falling stock prices rattling official Washington, he has had to defend his pro-business leanings and, in particular, his close relationship with the accounting industry, whose executives have been among his biggest campaign contributors. During the 1990s, he sided with business in successful Senate battles to let companies avoid treating stock options as a business expense in earnings reports and to restrict lawsuits against corporations and their accountants.

Lieberman agrees that he's more conservative than other Democratic hopefuls, who include Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.

"There's nobody to the right of me" on foreign affairs and economic policy, he said. "On environment and consumer [issues] and things of that kind, I have a progressive record."

The religion question

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