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Gore Betting Liberals Will Come Around

Despite disenchantment with some of the ticket's positions, fear will keep the left wing from voting for Bush, some say.


Addressing hundreds of labor leaders gathered for the Democratic National Convention, Vice President Al Gore went straight to a critical question: How passionately will unions and other liberal pillars of the party work for such a moderate, centrist ticket in the fall campaign?

"Let yourselves believe," Gore pleaded. "Don't hold back. Don't stay at arm's length. Jump in with both feet, because that's what it's going to take. I won't let you down."

If liberal delegates and other party activists here are any indication, most are prepared to do just that.

As the convention gears up to spotlight the liberal wing tonight, old-fashioned Democrats may not like everything they see in Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. But the GOP ticket of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney gives them the willies.

And fear can be stronger than ideology when it comes to uniting a political party.

Lauren Werman, a liberal delegate from Massachusetts, said fear of electing the Republicans will be enough to win back even hard-core environmentalists now flirting with the Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader. "I think when push comes to shove, when they see that can happen if they don't, they will support Gore-Lieberman," she said.

Gloria Johnson, a delegate and gay activist from San Diego, agreed: "I'm going to work very hard to get out the vote. All these people are going to be out in the fall. They understand the repercussions if they are not."

Former national party chairman Don Fowler, now a delegate from South Carolina, explained: "When people see Bush and Gore together and see what the choices are," skeptical liberals will answer the call. "Politics is relative. It's all relative."

No one knows better than Gore what a leap of faith it is for many liberal Democrats to throw their hearts into his campaign for the White House. As Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, put it in a recent interview, "Gore has really always been a centrist" and Lieberman "is to the right of center on some issues."

Yet neither Feldman nor a range of other left-of-center Democrats interviewed here see disagreements with Gore or Lieberman on specific issues as reason enough to withhold enthusiastic support from the Democratic ticket.

"It's like your wife," said Edward Dubrowski, president of the locomotive engineers union. "You're going to have ups and downs."

"We don't have a litmus test," Feldman agreed. "There is certainly room for differences when you have an overall sharing of values."

"I don't think that any constituency will be thrilled with every position taken by each member of the ticket," said New York state Atty. Gen. Eliot L. Spitzer, who has close ties to organized labor. "Across the range of issues that affect working people's lives, this ticket looks favorable. Bush-Cheney does not."

That does not mean Gore and Lieberman have no problems with the Democratic base.

Some activists still need the kind of hand-holding that Gore provided to union members when he addressed them via satellite Sunday. And when it comes to rank-and-file Democrats, Gore must work to draw the contrast with the Republicans.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who had tried to put more liberal language in the platform, said he worried that the centrist thrust of the campaign message risks alienating the party's political base--and could cost Gore the election.

"If we write off all the Democrats that are traditionally strong supporters of the party, we have a problem motivating them to go and vote," Kucinich said.

Former party chairman Fowler agrees there is work to be done. "I didn't say I think all is happiness and light. But there is substance and then there is illusion. . . . A lot of people haven't seen the contrast, but they will."

Similarly, Bob Newman, a Washington political operative long active on environmental issues, thinks hesitant liberals will be watching closely to see whether Gore and Lieberman "push the right buttons" at the convention this week, appealing to women, African Americans, labor leaders and environmentalists.

But Newman expects most liberals "will come home," in part because Gore and Lieberman have much more appealing positions than the GOP ticket on issues most important to liberals: health care, prescription drug benefits for Medicare, education and the environment.

Take the issue of logging and clear-cutting. "That's really important to me and to a lot of others," Neuman said. "Gore has been outspoken on that issue, even more so than the president."

Spitzer also thinks environmentalists will grow disenchanted with Nader's "green" challenge. "I have friends who are speaking with great resentment about what Ralph is doing," he said.

Even Jesse Jackson, who has not hesitated to challenge his party for straying from the true path, praised the selection of the relatively conservative Lieberman. "I'm glad," he told the crowd of union organizers and workers, because Gore has shown the election "is not about race. It is not about religion."

Uniting the Democrats around a centrist ticket is easier than in times past for at least two reasons:

First, the party base is not as far to the left as it used to be, in part because of efforts by President Clinton and Gore to redefine the party over the last eight years.

Second, after enjoying the fruits of power during the Clinton years, many--especially organized labor--have highly practical reasons to pull together.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney declared: "We must dominate the elections because the comeback of our movement depends on it."


Times staff writers Janet Hook, Peter Hong, Dan Morain and Jack Nelson contributed to this story.

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