When Sen. Joseph Lieberman takes the stage tonight at the Democratic National Convention, an important step in the party's attempt at transformation will unfold.
President Clinton has left Los Angeles. His protg, Al Gore, has symbolically taken over leadership of the party. And Mr. Gore's running mate, Senator Lieberman, emerges as a new standard-bearer for his party - a reverse Clinton who stands for virtue, not charm, who is a bane to Hollywood, not its buddy.
But how much can the Connecticut Democrat, a publicly religious Jewish man dubbed the "conscience of the Senate," truly lift his party's struggling effort to hold on to the White House?
So far, Democratic strategists see Lieberman as a plus to their ticket.
"There's no doubt that this race has gone from [a spread of] around 15 points to 9 or 10 points in the last week," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said at a Monitor breakfast. "The biggest thing that happened in that period was Joe Lieberman."
Republican pollster Frank Luntz acknowledges that Lieberman's selection has "caused people to take a second look" at Gore. When Gore announced his selection, Mr. Luntz lost several Jewish members of a group of undecided voters he has gathered to react to the Democrats' speeches here this week. Those five or six, he said, decided immediately to back Gore, so they were no longer useful in a focus group.
Still, Gore faces a daunting task in his race against the Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Democrats know that, almost always, the top of the ticket wins or loses the race, not the No. 2. As much as Gore tries to de-Clintonize himself, or at least distance himself from the negative aspects of the Clinton legacy, he can't avoid his public record of support for Mr. Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal or his own scrapes with scandal over campaign fundraising four years ago.
Lieberman's past statements about the Lewinsky affair and about the Clinton- Gore fundraising practices are already providing fodder for Republicans. It's there in black and white: In his book "In Praise of Public Life," released this spring, Lieberman writes about the 30-year decline in public confidence in politicians, culminating in "the unseemly revelations of campaign-finance wrongdoing in 1996, and on through the earth-shaking impeachment experience of 1998 and 1999."
Republicans are also busy pointing out policy areas in which Gore and Lieberman have disagreed, a tactic that may serve to decouple the two men in public thought. On the question of school vouchers, Gore is categorically opposed while Lieberman supports some pilot programs to test the idea, though he also suggests boosting federal funds for public schools.
On Social Security reform, Lieberman continues to insist that the retirement age should remain open to discussion, while Gore and the Democratic platform rule out the possibility of raising it. Lieberman had earlier reversed his position that some privatization of Social Security may be worth exploring, an idea that Gore opposes.
Democrats, in turn, point out that, while Lieberman is aligned with the centrist New Democrat movement, he has a record of voting with his party most of the time. He lines up with the liberal Americans for Democratic Action 80 percent of the time.
On the issue of judging Clinton's behavior in office, Lieberman has avoided direct condemnations since being tapped by Gore. And therein lies a problem for the senator: that he has set himself up as a paragon of virtue, and now runs the risk of appearing like a mere politician as he plays loyal running mate to Gore.
Democrat Ryan Karben, a Rockland County lawmaker in New York and an Orthodox Jew like Lieberman, sees an additional risk from his own experience - that the senator might come across as sanctimonious. "There's a fine line between talking about values and preaching," says Mr. Karben, a Gore supporter who attended law school with Gore's daughter Karenna. "I don't think the American people are looking for someone to preach to them. They're looking for someone to set goals for the nation."
AMONG the party faithful at the Staples Center, many chafe at the notion that Gore could use a boost from Lieberman in the moral-credentials department. "He doesn't need anyone to provide him with moral cover," says Stella Adams, a delegate from Durham, N.C., whose stovepipe hat is wallpapered with political buttons from three previous conventions. "Lieberman only reinforces his character and his strengths."
But others, like Becky Wynkoop of Lake Wales, Fla., believe Lieberman helps the Democrats shake a perception that the party is lax on values. "So many people think if you're a Democrat you don't have religion," says Ms. Wynkoop, her face framed by drooping donkey ears. Lieberman, because of "what he stands for," helps brings moral credibility to the ticket, she says. "His faith is very important."
Outside the convention hall, though, the question may not be whether Lieberman has elevated Gore, but whether he has diminished himself by signing on to support Clinton's loyal second. Sarajane Schwartz, an independent voter in Hollywood, had already decided to vote for Mr. Bush - she calls it a vote against Gore - when Lieberman joined the ticket. While she herself is Jewish, her decision remains firm.
"It's important to make a statement, particularly for young people, that Clinton's behavior is not acceptable," says Mrs. Schwartz, the mother of two adolescents. "The Democratic Party supported him.... No one resigned. Lieberman made a strong point, but didn't vote to convict and didn't say much after he spoke."
Ultimately, Clinton and Lieberman will be working on the same cause for the next three months: to get Al Gore elected. Clinton will campaign in core Democratic areas, a constituency that Gore still hasn't locked in as much as he would like. Lieberman will be used to help Gore woo moderate voters.
On political talk shows this week, Lieberman made clear that he defines his role as a vice-presidential candidate the same way Gore defined it when he was in that position - that is, loyal to the presidential nominee.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society