Can a Jew become president of the United States? We may soon find out.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is expected to announce his candidacy for president next month. A declaration seems more likely following former Vice President Al Gore's revelation Sunday that he would not seek the 2004 Democratic nomination. Lieberman, Gore's running mate on the 2000 ticket, had pledged that he would not run against Gore.
"He has not been shy in saying he's most likely going to do this," a senior Lieberman adviser said. "But it's not 100 percent sure; it's not a done deal."
Analysts and advisers said they have seen no evidence that the 60-year-old Lieberman's Orthodox faith would hinder his campaign. Many cited the warm reception when Lieberman ran as the Democratic candidate for vice president as proof that U.S. voters are ready for a Jew as president.
"I believe it [the U.S.] is [ready] if the American people conclude the candidate is well prepared to be president," Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post last week, when asked about any anti-Semitism in the 2000 campaign.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said, "I think what we learned in 2000 is that while there is anti-Semitism in this country, it's not widespread in the population, and people are willing to vote for a Jew on a national ticket."
One analyst said vice presidential candidates rarely help presidential campaigns -- and can only hurt them. The fact that Lieberman didn't hurt Gore's candidacy "is a strong statement about America," the analyst said.
Lieberman's devotion to his faith could be a draw for religious voters of all faiths. "The people of real faith have real appeal across America," Mellman said. "There are a whole lot of folks who appreciate a candidate of strong religious faith."
If Lieberman does seek the White House, analysts said his Judaism will be less of an issue this time around, simply because it's old news.
"The real issues that were breakthrough issues were dealt with in 2000," said Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee's contemporary Jewish life director. But curiosity about Judaism, which spiked during Lieberman's candidacy, likely would peak again and last longer if the senator seeks the White House, Bayme added.
Lieberman said Monday that he would announce in early January whether he'll run, giving him time to consult with family and friends. "The big decision has to come not just from my head but from my heart," the senator told The Post.
He was scheduled to travel to the Middle East this week, where he is expected to meet with U.S. troops stationed in the Persian Gulf and with political leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Many sources believe that Lieberman will throw his hat into the ring and will announce in his home state of Connecticut. "I said I probably would run if Al Gore doesn't run, and that remains the case," Lieberman said Monday.
When he was chosen as Gore's running mate before the August 2000 Democratic Convention, Lieberman evoked strong emotions among U.S. Jews. Jewish leaders initially were exultant about Lieberman's nomination, although some feared an anti-Semitic backlash.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said that while U.S. voters have "matured" to the point where they can accept a Jewish candidate, some Jewish leaders worry that a Jewish candidate would be seen as a public spokesman for the religion, and any misstep could give the faith a black eye.
"The experience of the last go-round is that elements of the American Jewish community are insecure, worried and anxious," Foxman said.
Lieberman made no major mistakes during the 2000 campaign, but he did face criticism from some U.S. Jewish leaders, including Foxman, for consistently invoking God in his campaign appearances.
"The line of church and state is an important one and has always been hard for us to draw, but in recent years, we have gone far beyond what the framers ever imagined in separating the two," Lieberman said in an October 2000 speech at the University of Notre Dame. "So much so that we have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square."
His comments -- and others like them -- drew criticism from ADL leaders, who said that "appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal."
While Lieberman generally is considered a strong supporter of Israel, some Jews feared that -- more than a Christian candidate -- Lieberman would go out of his way to prove that his Judaism did not make him a tool or an apologist for the Jewish State.
The senator told The Post, "Just as our friendship with Israel is not a Republican or Democratic issue, Israel's friendship with the United States is not a Likud or Labor issue. We have strong common values and interests which have sustained, and will continue to sustain, our very close bilateral friendship."
Lieberman is considered to have a decent shot at the 2004 Democratic nomination, consistently ranking in the top half of polls, along with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
However, it is unclear whether any Democrat would have a chance against President Bush, whose popularity ratings are high.
The Connecticut Democrat, critical of Bush's handling of the Mideast crisis, told The Post, "The administration disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for pretty much its entire first year in office, and sadly, it took Sept. 11 to bring the focus back to the problems of the region. We paid a price for lost time."
"I was also troubled," he continued, "by the signals the administration sent earlier this year questioning Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism at the height of the suicide bombings, which for a while muddied the moral clarity of our own war against terrorism, though I am pleased that the administration has since expressed its support for Israel's right of self-defense."
At the same time, though, he is a strong backer of a regime change in Iraq and was a co-sponsor of a key congressional resolution supporting a possible military offensive. Nonetheless, he has expressed his concern that the administration is not taking a comprehensive approach to the region and the U.S. role in promoting growth and stability, while preempting terrorist attacks.
Lieberman advisers said he has been talking to potential campaign staffers and generated good will among party loyalists for his commitment not to run against Gore. However, polls in the key primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa indicate that Lieberman also is among the candidates many people say they never would vote for, trailing only the Rev. Al Sharpton, although the reason was not clear.
While there may be some people who will not vote for Lieberman because of his Judaism, the fact that it is not being brought to the surface is "healthy," Bayme said, because it means that people recognize it is wrong to say such things.
"For an overwhelming majority of Americans, nominations are not fought out over one's Jewishness," he said. "For most Americans, what is relevant is Lieberman's stand on the issues."
Lieberman is considered a hawk on foreign policy and defense issues, and spoke out for the creation of a Homeland Security Department before it was backed by the White House.
In a race where most Democratic candidates will work to attract the votes of liberal party loyalists, Lieberman could cast himself as a moderate alternative, some analysts said.
Lieberman has parted company with a majority of the Jewish community on his support for faith-based initiatives, which allows government funding for religious organizations that offer social services. Lieberman co-sponsored Senate legislation on the issue that failed.
Lieberman would not be the first Jew to run for president on a major ticket. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) sought the Republican nomination in 1996, but dropped out before the first primary. The late Milton Shapp, a former Pennsylvania governor, ran briefly for the Democratic nomination in 1976.
If he does run, Lieberman is not assured of the Jewish vote. Howard Dean, the outgoing governor of Vermont who already has declared his candidacy, is married to a Jewish woman and is being advised by Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Dean visited Israel earlier this month, pledging support for U.S. loan guarantees to Israel. On CNN this week, Dean criticized the Bush administration for supporting Saudi Arabia, which he said is "funneling money to Hamas, which is causing terrorism and children to be murdered in Israel."
Yet even Grossman praised Lieberman. "The Jewish community and the pro-Israel community feel enormously close to Joe. I think he will earn an enormous amount of support from the Jewish community, both financial and otherwise," he said.