WASHINGTON (Dec. 17)
Can a Jew become president in America? We may soon find out.
Lieberman had pledged he would not run against Gore, his partner on the Democratic ticket in 2000.
“He has not been shy in saying he’s most likely going to do this,” a senior Lieberman adviser said. “But it’s not 100 percent sure, it’s not a done deal.”
Analysts and advisers say they have seen no evidence that Lieberman’s faith would hinder his campaign.
Many cite the warm reception when Lieberman ran as the Democratic candidate for vice president as proof that American voters are ready for a Jew as president.
“I think what we learned in 2000 is that while there is anti-Semitism in this country it’s not widespread in the population, and people are willing to vote for a Jew on a national ticket,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster.
One analyst said vice presidential candidates rarely help presidential campaigns — and can only hurt them. The fact that Lieberman didn’t hurt Gore’s candidacy “is a strong statement about America,” the analyst said.
In fact, Lieberman’s devotion to his faith — he is an observant Jew — could be a draw for religious voters of all faiths.
“The people of real faith have real appeal across America,” Mellman said. “There are a whole lot of folks who appreciate a candidate of strong religious faith.”
If Lieberman does seek the White House, analysts said his Judaism will be less of an issue this time around, simply because it’s old news.
“The real issues that were breakthrough issues were dealt with in 2000,” said Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.
But curiosity about Judaism, which spiked during Lieberman’s candidacy, likely would peak again and last longer if Lieberman seeks the White House, Bayme said.
One Lieberman adviser said Monday that the candidate faced no resistance in 2000 based on his religion.
“His attitude coming out of the 2000 campaign was that he couldn’t have gotten a warmer reception from the American people,” a Lieberman adviser said. “It redeemed his faith in the American ideals.”
Lieberman said Monday that he would announce whether he’ll run only in early January, giving him time to consult with family and friends.
He also is traveling to the Middle East this week, where he is expected to meet with American troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and with political leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
But many believe Lieberman will throw his hat into the ring, and will announce in his home state of Connecticut, sources said.
“I said I probably would run if Al Gore doesn’t run, and that remains the case,” Lieberman said Monday.
When he was chosen as Gore’s running mate before the August 2000 Democratic convention, Lieberman evoked strong emotions among American Jews.
Jewish leaders initially were exultant about Lieberman’s nomination — though some feared an anti-Semitic backlash.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that while American voters have “matured” to the point where they can accept a Jewish candidate, some Jewish leaders worry that a Jewish candidate would be seen as a public spokesman for the religion, and any misstep could give the faith a black eye.
“The experience of the last go-round is that elements of the American Jewish community are insecure, worried and anxious,” Foxman said.
Lieberman made no major mistakes during the 2000 campaign, but he did face criticism from some American Jewish leaders, including Foxman, for consistently invoking God in his campaign appearances.
“The line of church and state is an important one and has always been hard for us to draw, but in recent years we have gone far beyond what the framers ever imagined in separating the two,” Lieberman said in an October 2000 speech at the University of Notre Dame. “So much so that we have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square.”
His comments — and others like them — drew criticism from ADL leaders, who said that “appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal.”
While Lieberman generally is considered a strong supporter of Israel, some Jews feared that — more than a Christian candidate — Lieberman would go out of his way to prove that his Judaism did not make him a tool or an apologist for the Jewish state.
It is unclear whether any Democrat would have a shot against President Bush, whose popularity ratings are high.
Lieberman advisers say he has been talking to potential campaign staffers, and generated good will among party loyalists for his commitment not to run against Gore.
However, polls in the key primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa indicate that Lieberman also is among the candidates many people say they never would vote for, trailing only Rev. Al Sharpton — though the reason was not clear.
While there may be some people who will not vote for Lieberman because of his Judaism, the fact that it is not being brought to the surface is “healthy,” Bayme said, because it means that people recognize it is wrong to say such things.
“For an overwhelming majority of Americans, nominations are not fought out over one’s Jewishness,” he said. “For most Americans, what is relevant is Lieberman’s stand on the issues.”
Lieberman is considered a hawk on foreign policy and defense issues, and spoke out for the creation of a Homeland Security Department before it was backed by the White House.
His work on that issue will be key in the first presidential election to be held since Sept. 11, said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a political committee Lieberman helped form in the 1990s.
“Lieberman is well positioned to be a qualified national spokesman for the Democrats,” he said.
In a race where most Democratic candidates will work to attract the votes of liberal party loyalists, Lieberman could cast himself as a moderate alternative, some analysts said.
In fact, Lieberman has parted company with a majority of the Jewish community on his support for faith-based initiatives, which allows government funding for religious organizations that offer social services.
Lieberman co-sponsored legislation on the issue in the Senate, which failed.
Lieberman would not be the first Jew to run for president on a major ticket.
If he does run, Lieberman is not assured of the Jewish vote. Howard Dean, the outgoing governor of Vermont who already has declared his candidacy, is married to a Jewish woman and is being advised by Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Dean visited Israel earlier this month, pledging support for U.S. loan guarantees to Israel.
On CNN Sunday, Dean criticized the Bush administration for supporting Saudi Arabia, which he said is “funneling money to Hamas, which is causing terrorism and children to be murdered in Israel.”
Yet even Grossman praised Lieberman.
“The Jewish community and the pro-Israel community feel enormously close to Joe,” Grossman said. “I think he will earn an enormous amount of support from the Jewish community, both financial and otherwise.”