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You Go, Joe

Al Gore's choice of Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman for vice-president was about the only thing that went right with that campaign. Now Lieberman aims to make history at the top of the ticket -- if only Gore would step out of his way.

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At Sunday-morning services at the Beulah Heights Pentecostal Church in New Haven, the gospel choir is making a joyful noise -- so joyful, in fact, that they are oblivious to the fact that several rather prominent politicians are waiting to address the congregation. While some squirm impatiently, Joe Lieberman is caught up in the emotion, rolling his arms in an impromptu dance, singing along with "This Is the Day the Lord Has Made." As the devoutly religious Lieberman later tells me with sincerity, "I'm always so grateful to have an opportunity for a spiritual experience."

When the music finally gives way to the campaigning, Bishop Theodore Brooks hails the Connecticut senator. "Can I say it like it ought to be?" Brooks declaims. "Here's the future president of the United States!" The African-American congregation roars. Lieberman replies, "As my mother would say if she were here, 'Bishop, from your lips to God's ears.' "

Just in case God's listening, there's another fervent prayer being offered up these days in Lieberworld (his orbit as nicknamed by staff and supporters): Please let Al Gore sit out the 2004 presidential election.

In a moment of perhaps misguided gratitude, Lieberman announced in January 2001 that he wouldn't run for the Democratic nomination if Gore did. Moreover, Lieberman has resisted every possible invitation to wiggle out of the pledge. The former veep has said he'll announce his political plans in January, but who knows if this latest timetable is for real? Senator John McCain, the GOP maverick and Lieberman ally, says, "My advice to Joe is that he shouldn't wait for Al Gore to make a decision." Repeat McCain's words to Lieberman, and he smiles. "I know, John tells me that all the time. But I feel I owe it to Al to wait."

Lieberman, to put it mildly, would be a rather unusual Democratic candidate for president. On the issues, he's to the right of just about any prominent Democrat. And then -- duh -- there is his religion. His Orthodox Judaism caused a sensation when Gore nominated him for vice-president in 2000 -- possibly the only shrewd move in that campaign. But will he play as the main attraction? Ask Democratic voters for their top choice if front-runner Gore opts out, and Lieberman, a.k.a. Mr. Name Recognition, not only edges out Democratic congressional leaders Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle but beats in early polls the two men getting the most buzz, patrician Massachusetts senator John Kerry and charismatic North Carolina senator John Edwards.

But influential Democrats almost uniformly downplay Lieberman's chances on the grounds that he's just too conservative. He's a hawk on Iraq, too close to the business community, a crusader against Hollywood violence -- all positions that are anathema to liberal Democrats. "Joe Lieberman is far too much to the right to motivate the activists," says one top New York fund-raiser. "And his religiosity makes people uncomfortable." A leading Democratic political operative adds, "Joe's not particularly charismatic, and he's too conservative to win the black-Hispanic-union-liberal activists."

The odd thing is that the same views and cultural conservatism that would handicap him in party primaries might serve as assets in a campaign against George W. Bush -- if Lieberman managed to get that far. Last week's GOP landslide certainly demonstrates the country's disaffection with liberalism. "I think Lieberman has the potential to win swing voters," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "He's not a doctrinaire Democrat, and he doesn't sound angry." Adds former Clinton adviser and bad-boy New York Post columnist Dick Morris, "Lieberman's trying to be the candidate of the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. We'll invade Iraq, we'll win, and Lieberman's position's will look good." He adds that in this religious nation, Lieberman's piety could play well. "The Christian Coalition is very right-wing, and also generally pro-Jewish. There's a high level of admiration for Joe."

To spend time with Lieberman during this trial-run, what-if candidacy is to see a man who is carefully honing his political persona. Lieberman can be charming and quick with a quip (Al From, CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, has nicknamed him Shecky Lieberman). He's turned his pledge to Gore into a running shtick. Appearing on Face the Nation, he joked off-camera by asking CBS anchor Bob Schieffer about his career plans: "Are you waiting to see what Gore will do?" "No," Schieffer replied, "I'm waiting to see what Brokaw does."

But there's a steeliness beneath Lieberman's mild-mannered veneer. Ask Lieberman a tough question, and he'll often reply, "That's interesting" -- a comment I assumed was aimed to flatter the questioner and stall for time. Then I asked his former chief of staff, lobbyist Michael Lewan, how he could tell when the low-key Lieberman was annoyed. "When he hears you out and says, 'That's interesting,' " Lewan says, "you know he thinks you've said something really stupid, but he doesn't want to hurt your feelings."


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