The Pros See Some Cons on Lieberman


Now that his kippah is officially in the presidential ring,
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is expected to win enthusiastic support from
Jews across the country. But his formal announcement on Monday has also touched
off a quiet undercurrent of concern that 2004 may not be as opportune a time
for a breakthrough Jewish candidacy as 2000.

Some Jewish leaders even worry that his candidacy could
trigger new anti-Semitism in a nation on edge over the sinking economy, Mideast
turmoil and the specter of new terrorism.

“These are legitimate fears, especially given the increasing
problems in the Middle East,” said University of Akron political scientist John
Green. “Lieberman’s faith could become an issue and get tied up with other
controversies.”

That reaction could be particularly strong in the black
community, on college campuses and in the emerging anti-war movement, he said.
Still, Green predicted that Lieberman “has a decent shot at the nomination, and
at this point, as good a chance as anyone of defeating Bush.”

“But the road is rougher than it was in 2000,” the political
scientist added. “All else being equal, I think the nation can accept a Jewish
president. Of course, all things are not equal.”

Other analysts said that Lieberman has already broken the
critical barrier, and that fears of an anti-Semitic backlash are wildly
exaggerated.

“The biggest reaction in our community is ‘ho hum,'” said a
longtime Jewish political activist. “The Lieberman novelty has worn off; I
don’t see people scared that this is going to get the anti-Semites to come out
of the closet. That kind of thinking is just ghetto mentality.”

Lieberman’s recent Mideast trip, analysts said, was a
calculated effort to demonstrate that he will be able to act fairly in the
region, despite his strong personal stake in Israel.

Lieberman is likely to tap a rich vein of Jewish financial
support in his campaign, a necessity if he is to survive in a crowded field.
However, Jewish support will not be universal, especially in the race for the
nomination.

“Lieberman has some major vulnerabilities with Jews,” Green
said. “He is more religiously observant than many and more conservative than
most. In the primaries, there may be a struggle between group loyalty and
ideology in supporting him.”

Orthodox and right-of-center activists worry that Lieberman
is already trying too hard to prove his Mideast objectivity.

“There are many in our community who were not happy with his
Middle East trip,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive director of the
Religious Zionists of America and a former Orthodox Union president. “There is
concern that he may try to bend over backwards to show his fairness.”

Despite concerns from both ends of the Jewish political
spectrum, most analysts said the lawmaker, now in his third term, is likely to
win overwhelming Jewish support if he survives the primaries and runs in the
general election.

Monday’s announcement took place in Stamford, Conn., at the
high school Lieberman attended. He said he would be a “different kind of
Democrat” and promised a campaign of issues and ideas, not rank partisanship.
He signaled that a key issue would be national security and the fight against
terrorism, and said that the Bush administration is driven by “extreme
ideologues,” who complicate that fight.

Experts said Lieberman has a decent chance to win the
nomination, but that he still faces major obstacles, starting with a lot of
big-name competition and a potentially explosive political landscape.

Lieberman — the chief Democratic backer of the resolution
giving Bush wide authority to pursue a war against Iraq — will walk a difficult
line on key security questions. He has generally supported the administration’s
Iraq policy and was the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill giving President
Bush authority to wage war in Iraq.

If the war goes well, that could put him ahead of other
Democrats who are trying to stake out more dovish positions. But if the war
effort bogs down and generates strong domestic opposition, “Joe will have to
quickly distance himself from the president’s policies,” said a top Jewish
Democrat. “And that could be awkward, given his recent record.”

Most analysts agreed that Lieberman will face a stiff
challenge in the Democrat primaries as the party’s center shifts back toward
the left. Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, warned
that Lieberman, whose political pitch has always been based on morality and
integrity, will be held to a high standard on consistency.

“Lieberman has to be careful not to do what he did when
picked as vice president by Gore in 2000,” he said. “That is, he has got to
stick to his first principles.”

Republican opposition research teams are already pumping out
information on Lieberman’s 2000 shifts on issues.

“I would hope that this time Joe Lieberman will steer a
straight course, without any of the flip-flops that marked his candidacy in
2001,” said New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind in a statement. Hikind said,
“Lieberman the vice presidential candidate was just a pale replica of the
senator Lieberman” on issues such as vouchers, affirmative action and
Jerusalem, and accused the candidate of being a “political contortionist”
during the 2000 campaign.

Rabbi David Woznica, executive director of Jewish affairs at
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will interview Lieberman and his
wife, Hadassah, at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Jan. 19. The live event
will be broadcast at 4:30 p.m. at the West Valley Jewish Community Center, 22622
Vanowen St., West Hills. Seating is limited. R.S.V.P., at (818) 464-3300.