Lieberman in 2004?

Joe Lieberman is willin'.

Yes, the senator from Connecticut who proved himself to be such an attractive (though losing) vice presidential candidate is even taking tentative steps to run for president four years from now.

To be sure, the senator is indicating that if Al Gore runs again it will be "very awkward" for him to get into a race where he would be taking on his old friend and the man who had given him the spot on the presidential ticket. But at a recent Monitor breakfast, when I asked our genial guest whether he would "rule out" such a run, he said, "no," he wouldn't rule it out.

Indeed, only three hours later Senator Lieberman was meeting with two dozen political operatives and old friends at a luncheon that focused on the possibility of his reaching out for the brass ring in 2004.

But Lieberman's presidential thoughts go beyond his own musings and hearing the advice of others: He's forming a political action committee that will look into the practicalities of a Lieberman presidential campaign, particularly the fundraising challenge.

The luncheon meeting itself is being seen by Washington observers as the first step toward a Lieberman presidential drive. And just the day before, he had delivered an economic policy speech that could easily be interpreted as the utterings of someone who was laying out some presidential-campaign thoughts and goals.

So this brings us to the real question: Could a defeated vice presidential candidate gain his party's nomination and then be elected president? Normally I'd say "no." But I think Joe Lieberman is a special case - and here's why.

Back in 1956 an attractive young senator by the name of John F. Kennedy lost his bid for the vice presidential spot on the ticket when the Democratic convention delegates in Chicago chose Estes Kefauver over him.

The just-selected presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, had decided not to pick his own running mate and, instead, had turned to the convention to make that selection.

As a newsman, I dogged Kennedy's footsteps for the rest of that day, most of that night, and right up to the next afternoon's election. And I saw how tirelessly he worked to become Stevenson's No. 2 - and how bitterly disappointed he was when he lost by just a few votes.

The judgment of observers at the time was that this was the end of Kennedy's presidential hopes, particularly because he was a Roman Catholic. Well, we all saw Kennedy rise again, just four years later, to overcome both "loser" and prejudice handicaps - and become president.

The parallel is far from precise; but "loser" Lieberman could possibly become another Kennedy. The two are far different in personality and lifestyle. But Mr. Lieberman, like Kennedy, is so very attractive and bright. Could it be that this is the moment when such a candidate will also be able to overcome prejudice and become the first Jewish president? I think it is possible.

Oh, there are plenty of doubters in Democratic political circles about the potency of a Lieberman presidential candidacy. Some I've talked to put it this way: "Gore should get his chance to run again after winning that popular victory." Others take a tack along this line: "Gore looked terrible as a candidate and it rubbed off onto Lieberman. We don't think either should be our candidate next time."

And after Lieberman had delivered what could only be called a great speech at a recent press banquet, I asked three prominent Democrats whether Joe looked to them now like a possible presidential candidate. And they all said "no," that the party would probably pick someone else.

But a lot of Democratic leaders were writing off Kennedy in the same way after his 1956 vice presidential nomination loss.

I was reminded at both Lieberman's banquet speech and his meeting with the Monitor breakfast group of what a warm, good-humored man he is. There were so many of the breakfasters, too, who, commented afterward on how likable he is and how politically potent he remains.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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