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Just Say Joe

Senator Lieberman on the Gore ticket may be a gift for Hillary Clinton, but some assembly is required: She still needs to work harder at building Jewish support.

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Fate, which has more often been foe than friend to Hillary Clinton these past fourteen months, finally saw fit to smile on the candidate twice last week, on one occasion in the form of lucky timing and on the other as the fortunate residue of a decision young Hillary Diane Rodham made 30 years ago.

She was visiting law schools, and it was down to Yale and Harvard. On a visit to Cambridge, David Brock's biography reports, a stentorian and Housemanesque professor stared her down and said that at Harvard, "we don't need any more women." Hillary was off like a shot to New Haven, where both she and her future husband did a little volunteer work in the 1970 Connecticut State Senate campaign of one Joseph I. Lieberman.

Last Tuesday, the very day Al Gore named Lieberman as his choice for vice-president, Hillary's feature campaign event was a well-timed -- but previously scheduled -- stop at an Orthodox Jewish girls' school in Rockland County; principal Devorah Reichman announced that the town, New Square, would name a street in honor of Bill Clinton, which is arguably more than Little Rock itself has been willing to do (it finally did, after debate, but only part of a street).

So from a kismet point of view, this Lieberman thing was looking pretty good right out of the box. When Hillary had her Suha problem last November, Lieberman accompanied her to a damage-control meeting at the Orthodox Union the following month. And while it's not as though he had them wearing Cubs caps, the fact that it was Lieberman she called on then lends her effort to link herself to him now a certain I-knew-him-when kind of credibility.

What does the Lieberman selection do to the Senate race? We'll get to vote-counting anon, but first let's cruise the emotional landscape on which the vote count will be partially based. On this terrain, Lieberman is potentially a huge plus for Mrs. Clinton. A Republican operative told me last week that the anecdotal evidence in his circles was piling up fast: Several Jewish Republicans and Democratic moderates he knew who had declared themselves for Bush, their breasts now aswell with pride, switched teams the moment of the Lieberman announcement. And they're likely to stay there.

Hillary has made fewer than a half-dozen campaign appearances before Orthodox or Conservative Jewish groups. That number needs to go up pretty dramatically.

Hillary still has to earn Jewish votes on her own. But Lieberman opens up new ways to do that. "He is a hero now," says an Orthodox Jewish Democratic operative. "He's my hero. All of a sudden he can say the same things" -- extravagant praise for Hillary Clinton, for example -- "he was saying eight months ago, and it matters more. Before, his support was a defensive maneuver. Now it's an offensive weapon."

Well put. A 30-second testimonial commercial from Senator Lieberman would have had some value; the same from vice-presidential candidate Lieberman is off the charts.

Now the but. Campaigns often deceive themselves into thinking they can make up lost yardage with one play, and this campaign is no different. Consider this insidery but telling argument that's been going on within the Clinton campaign and Jewish circles. The Clinton campaign's Jewish-outreach person is Karen Adler, an old friend of Hillary's who is now best known for having broken the first rule of tight-ship campaigning -- namely, don't put anything in writing. A memo she wrote during the "Jew bastard" nonsense urging Jewish pols to call Jewish newspapers, and instructing them not to say they were calling at the campaign's behest, was, naturally, leaked. That monumental gaffe was her fault. What isn't really her fault but is an affliction nonetheless is that Adler's connections are much deeper in liberal Jewish circles than in Conservative or Orthodox ones. For weeks, pols and operatives have been urging the campaign to hire a second Jewish liaison, someone with whom the Orthodox rabbis are acquainted. There's a connection between the leak and the general problem: Sources have told me that the memo was leaked by a supporter who was upset that the campaign had no Orthodox outreach. The campaign is reportedly finally hiring someone.

Of course, it comes about eight months late, which is but one expression of the confused state of the campaign's disunited Jewish appeals. Two examples: Hillary has made fewer than a half-dozen public campaign appearances before Orthodox or Conservative Jewish groups. That number needs to go up, fast. Second, take a neighborhood such as Riverdale, where Al Gore will win 80 or 85 percent of the votes and Hillary, if things don't change, 50 or 55. Aside from appearing at a Democratic club dinner in April, she hasn't been there. Democrats do not win statewide elections by ducking places like Riverdale. And since we opened with fate . . . lo and behold, Hadassah Lieberman's mother, Ella Freilich, who survived Auschwitz, lives there.

About 6.5 million New Yorkers will vote this November. Roughly 800,000 of those voters will be Jews, the vast majority of whom are Democrats. The difference between 55 percent of that bloc, which Hillary more or less has, and 65 percent, which she more or less needs, amounts to 80,000 votes. Hey, Eliot Spitzer won by 22,000, so every little chunk can make a difference. "She has to wrap herself around Lieberman, Koch, and Shelly in his community," says a Democratic operative, referring, of course, to Ed and Assembly Speaker Silver, the state's highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish official.

At the same time, it's worth remembering that, despite the press fixation, 5.7 million voters won't be Jews. Hillary's bigger problems are with white Protestants and white Catholics. (A question no one has yet been impolite enough to ask: Will the Lieberman choice hurt Democrats among white Catholics? C'mon, you've thought of it, too.) Whereas a ten-point swing among Jewish voters is 80,000 votes, a swing half that size among Catholics is about 160,000 votes.

So, numerically, Lieberman may not add up to that much. But numbers are effect, not cause. Strategy can change them, and so can the momentum gained from taking advantage -- if indeed this multiheaded monster of a campaign manages to -- of an event such as the unexpected and extremely lucky addition of one more weapon to the arsenal. Hillary must be awfully glad she chose Yale.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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