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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman Puts Faith in Gore's Populist Pitch

October 24, 2000|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — Over and over again, Al Gore tells voters what would guide him as president. "I'm for the people, not the powerful," the vice president says.

Meanwhile, running mate Joseph I. Lieberman has added something to the standard explanation of what the Democratic ticket stands for: why.

Infusing his own political philosophy into his campaign for vice president, Lieberman has sought to envelope Gore's populist pitch with a perspective driven by faith and values. Thus, the biblical commandment to "Honor thy father and mother" demands support for Social Security and Medicare, he tells audiences. Belief in God should translate into a love for the environment, God's creation, he adds.

With just two weeks left in the presidential race, Lieberman is attempting to ground the Democratic agenda in his world view. Today, the senator from Connecticut plans to deliver a major speech at the University of Notre Dame furthering the themes of faith and values in public life.

By laying out the moral underpinnings that he says he shares with Gore, Lieberman hopes to counter the appeal of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." He also is trying to outline the type of overview some say Gore has failed to provide: an impassioned, deeply personal explanation of what propels their positions.

"If there's been anything that's been wrong with the campaign, it's that Gore hasn't given people a sense of what he believes in," said one Democratic consultant who did not want to be named.

Just this weekend, Gore started talking about values on the campaign trail, but his references paled in comparison to detailed remarks his running mate has made on how his Jewish faith and his values knit together his political philosophy.

"In many ways, we were the first nation in history that was founded not just on a set of borders, but on a set of ideals," he told audiences from Wisconsin to West Palm Beach last week. "Sometimes in the midst of a political campaign like the one we're in now, it's easy to lose sight of that connection, but the reality is that our leadership and our laws, at our best, must flow from our values and reflect the basic principles that America is all about."

In a recent interview, Lieberman said he and Gore share "a commitment to relate our programs to those values" found in America's founding documents and Judeo-Christian beliefs. But he seemed to acknowledge that, for one reason or another, Gore has not conveyed that fully to voters, leaving the task up to him.

"One of the reasons I'm so proud to run with him is that there's a big 'there' there," he said, referring to Gore's overarching political philosophy. "And maybe it's so big that it's hard to express it all."

The overtly religious statements Lieberman makes have not been without risk. By explicitly linking his Judaism and political positions, he has opened himself up to criticism that he mixes his religion too much with his politics and accusations that he's exploiting his beliefs for political gains. Many Americans--even religious ones--blanch at hearing God invoked so prominently in a discussion about federal policy.

For a brief period, Lieberman toned down his religious references, but for the most part he has been undeterred. And as today's speech indicates, he plans no change as the campaign draws to a close.

"It's time to start summing up and put the programs that Al Gore and I have into a context," he said in the recent interview, "in a sense, to put them on a broader canvas."

Despite the potential backlash, many experts say Lieberman's values-laden talk will ring a strong chord among many Americans. In a recent NBC News poll, 44% of registered voters said that moral values should be the top priority for the next president, while only 28% said it should be maintaining economic growth.

"Clearly, he's tapping into something," said Charles Cook, editor of a nonpartisan, Washington-based political newsletter. "If this election was just about people's pocketbooks on a policy level, Gore would be running away with it. Any pollster can tell you that people think something is wrong with the way the country's going. We're not talking about policies, we're talking about values."

Longtime friends say the reason Lieberman feels so comfortable talking about values on the stump is because ideals such as equal opportunity and fairness that he cites stem directly from his political philosophy, one shaped by his Judaism and his leadership of the centrist New Democrat movement.

"Joe has that ability [to communicate his philosophy] and it's because he grounds his ideas in values that have a broader application than just to the constituency he's talking to," said Al From, who as the president of Democratic Leadership Council has worked with Lieberman for more than a decade on developing a centrist Democratic agenda.

There are times when the political philosophy that Lieberman is so good at communicating has struck a discordant note with Gore's message.

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