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Lieberman Bares the Softer Side of Gore

Politics: As the senator presents his image of his running mate to voters, the vice president's 'likability' numbers go up in polls.


There's this guy Joe, see, and he wants to tell you about his friend Al. Al is a good man, he says. Loves his wife (30 years together!) and volunteered in Vietnam. And boy, does he have good kids.

Such is the unabashed, breezy style Joseph I. Lieberman uses day after day to describe his Democratic running mate, Vice President Al Gore. Perhaps it's no coincidence that as Lieberman goes on and on about his friend ("a man of conviction"), Gore's "likability" numbers have risen in polls.

"It's part and parcel of an overall strategy to convey a personal side of Gore," said John Geer, an expert on presidential politics at Vanderbilt University. "Lieberman helps because he's charming and charismatic, and so it's credible for someone like that to be able to say that Gore is likable."

Indeed, a new Times poll released last week shows that 37% of likely voters find the vice president personally likable, compared to 31% in early August. Voters also gave Gore higher marks as a caring, honest and moral person than they did a month earlier.

Why the change? Since the Democratic National Convention, where he announced he was running for president as "my own man," Gore has tried to project a more human side, gossiping with Oprah Winfrey and planting a passionate kiss on his wife, Tipper. But one of Gore's best weapons so far in showing a softer side to the public may be the pitch his running mate gives at nearly every stop.

Forget those late-night jokes about the "wooden" Al Gore. Forget the ugly stain of the 1996 fund-raising scandals. This guy Al is a great all-around guy, says Lieberman, who got to know Gore when they served in the Senate--Lieberman from Connecticut, Gore from Tennessee.

"I've known Al for 15 years," he tells people everywhere from Fresno to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the confidential tones of a man vouching for a close buddy. "I know his record and I know his heart. I've sat around a dinner table with him and talked issues. We've shared moments of prayer together."

(Compare Lieberman to his Republican counterpart. Dick Cheney, who speaks little about his own personal life, offers audiences even fewer details about Texas Gov. George W. Bush, promising only that the Republican ticket "will restore honor and dignity to the White House.")

In battleground states such as Michigan and Illinois, Lieberman has helped separate Gore from Bill Clinton, who now polls lower in likability there than the vice president, said Ed Sarpolus, an independent Michigan-based pollster.

"You know that saying, 'You can know them by the friends they keep' ?" Sarpolus said. "Lieberman allows people to see Gore associated with someone else other than Bill." Perhaps that's why Lieberman regularly calls him "gutsy," "thoughtful" and "independent."

Aubrey Immelman, a political psychologist who studies presidential personalities, said that liking a candidate can be the "pivotal factor" for unaffiliated swing voters--a key constituency in this tight election.

Until recently, Gore's introverted personality made him a mystery, said Immelman, who teaches at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. But with Lieberman, he said, "there's kind of a halo effect."

There certainly is.

Jennifer Kanzler, a registered Republican, said she used to think of Gore in terms of "all the talk show stuff . . . boring, wooden."

But after hearing Lieberman speak at an outdoor rally at Cal State Fresno recently, Kanzler said she was leaning toward the Democratic ticket.

"He did make him seem a little bit more of a real person, rather than just a guy in the background behind Bill Clinton," said Kanzler, 32, a sixth-grade teacher. "I think it's important to know what kind of a person he is, because that's going to influence his decision-making process. His own morals and values, I think, will be what guide him."

One of the things that moved her the most was Lieberman's description of Gore's marriage.

"That showed me he's got some kind of commitment," she said. "My own parents have been married over 30 years, so that's what I thought of."

In an interview, Lieberman said he has been frustrated by the public image of Gore. He feels "a certain sense of mission about wanting to describe the Al Gore that I know."

"I don't think they saw the depth of the personality," he said, "the extent to which he's a genuine family person and cares about people, and you know, has a good sense of humor--all that stuff."

Corey Leeson, a 28-year-old engineer from Cleveland, wasn't too crazy about Gore when the race started. A longtime Democrat, he thought of Gore as "a little bit stiff."

But then he heard Lieberman describe Gore's close relationship with his four children.

"As vice president, you don't necessarily see so much of Al Gore, but it's starting to come out more now," said Leeson, who attended a boisterous Lieberman rally at a Cleveland high school. "It's important to be a good father. He's got his priorities in the right place."

Even Republicans admit Lieberman's spiel is having an effect.

"I think Lieberman has been a pretty good deodorizer for Gore," said GOP consultant Nelson Warfield. "The question is, does it help enough? Gore still has image problems that a vote of confidence from his No. 2 isn't going to cure."

Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this story.

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