Holidays a tricky time of year for Lieberman

Only Jewish candidate for president asks Santa for good showing in N.H.

December 26, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HAMPTON, N.H. - Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman might be the only presidential hopeful who doesn't celebrate Christmas, but that didn't stop him from sitting on Santa Claus' lap Sunday and asking for "a better-than-expected return on the New Hampshire primary."

Santa, entertaining children at the Old Salt Eating and Drinking Place in the sleepy New Hampshire town of Hampton, didn't make any promises.

"I don't know if it was totally presidential, but it felt like the right thing to do," Lieberman joked afterward.

For the only Orthodox Jewish candidate in the presidential race, this is a tricky time of year. As most Americans are lighting Christmas trees, the Connecticut Democrat and his family are lighting a menorah to observe the eight days of Hanukkah.

There has never been a Jewish U.S. president. Lieberman hopes his political message transcends religion to touch the core of the American soul.

"I always say that I am running for president as an American who happens to be Jewish, not the other way around," Lieberman said in an interview.

Polls put Lieberman in fourth place in New Hampshire, which he considers crucial to his quest for the White House. Its primary is Jan. 27. If he doesn't finish third or better, he might not have the political or financial juice to stay in the race.

Rabbi Levi Krinsky, the head of the Lubavitch of New Hampshire Jewish outreach organization, said Lieberman's religion could be his greatest strength but it also presents a risk. "I think that's truly his challenge, to insulate himself with his religion without isolating himself," Krinsky said.

Last weekend, Krinsky visited Lieberman's new apartment in Manchester to bring it up to kosher status by firing up the oven and range to obliterate food particles and wiping down the counters with boiling water.

Asked whether he would have a Christmas tree or a menorah in the White House if he's elected president, Lieberman said he'd have both.

"The president is a tenant there," he said. "The White House belongs to the American people."

He said he saw Hanukkah as a time of year that carried "the possibility of changing things." The change he needs most now is an uptick in his poll numbers.

Lieberman's religion doesn't appear to be a factor for most people. "I don't think his religion would make a difference," said Joe Higgins, the owner of the Old Salt.

Lieberman himself is counting on at least one crucial endorsement.

"The most important thing that happened today," Lieberman said outside the restaurant, "is I believe I was endorsed by Santa Claus."

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