Now that his kippah is officially in the presidential ring, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is expected to win enthusiastic support from Jews across the country. But his formal announcement on Monday has also touched off a quiet undercurrent of concern that 2004 may not be as opportune a time for a breakthrough Jewish candidacy as 2000.
Some Jewish leaders even worry that his candidacy could trigger new anti-Semitism in a nation on edge over the sinking economy, Mideast turmoil and the specter of new terrorism.
"These are legitimate fears, especially given the increasing problems in the Middle East," said University of Akron political scientist John Green. "Lieberman's faith could become an issue and get tied up with other controversies."
That reaction could be particularly strong in the black community, on college campuses and in the emerging anti-war movement, he said. Still, Green predicted that Lieberman "has a decent shot at the nomination, and at this point, as good a chance as anyone of defeating Bush."
"But the road is rougher than it was in 2000," the political scientist added. "All else being equal, I think the nation can accept a Jewish president. Of course, all things are not equal."
Other analysts said that Lieberman has already broken the critical barrier, and that fears of an anti-Semitic backlash are wildly exaggerated.
"The biggest reaction in our community is 'ho hum,'" said a longtime Jewish political activist. "The Lieberman novelty has worn off; I don't see people scared that this is going to get the anti-Semites to come out of the closet. That kind of thinking is just ghetto mentality."
Lieberman's recent Mideast trip, analysts said, was a calculated effort to demonstrate that he will be able to act fairly in the region, despite his strong personal stake in Israel.
Lieberman is likely to tap a rich vein of Jewish financial support in his campaign, a necessity if he is to survive in a crowded field. However, Jewish support will not be universal, especially in the race for the nomination.
"Lieberman has some major vulnerabilities with Jews," Green said. "He is more religiously observant than many and more conservative than most. In the primaries, there may be a struggle between group loyalty and ideology in supporting him."
Orthodox and right-of-center activists worry that Lieberman is already trying too hard to prove his Mideast objectivity.
"There are many in our community who were not happy with his Middle East trip," said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, executive director of the Religious Zionists of America and a former Orthodox Union president. "There is concern that he may try to bend over backwards to show his fairness."
Despite concerns from both ends of the Jewish political spectrum, most analysts said the lawmaker, now in his third term, is likely to win overwhelming Jewish support if he survives the primaries and runs in the general election.
Monday's announcement took place in Stamford, Conn., at the high school Lieberman attended. He said he would be a "different kind of Democrat" and promised a campaign of issues and ideas, not rank partisanship. He signaled that a key issue would be national security and the fight against terrorism, and said that the Bush administration is driven by "extreme ideologues," who complicate that fight.
Experts said Lieberman has a decent chance to win the nomination, but that he still faces major obstacles, starting with a lot of big-name competition and a potentially explosive political landscape.
Lieberman -- the chief Democratic backer of the resolution giving Bush wide authority to pursue a war against Iraq -- will walk a difficult line on key security questions. He has generally supported the administration's Iraq policy and was the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill giving President Bush authority to wage war in Iraq.
If the war goes well, that could put him ahead of other Democrats who are trying to stake out more dovish positions. But if the war effort bogs down and generates strong domestic opposition, "Joe will have to quickly distance himself from the president's policies," said a top Jewish Democrat. "And that could be awkward, given his recent record."
Most analysts agreed that Lieberman will face a stiff challenge in the Democrat primaries as the party's center shifts back toward the left. Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, warned that Lieberman, whose political pitch has always been based on morality and integrity, will be held to a high standard on consistency.
"Lieberman has to be careful not to do what he did when picked as vice president by Gore in 2000," he said. "That is, he has got to stick to his first principles."
Republican opposition research teams are already pumping out information on Lieberman's 2000 shifts on issues.
"I would hope that this time Joe Lieberman will steer a straight course, without any of the flip-flops that marked his candidacy in 2001," said New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind in a statement. Hikind said, "Lieberman the vice presidential candidate was just a pale replica of the senator Lieberman" on issues such as vouchers, affirmative action and Jerusalem, and accused the candidate of being a "political contortionist" during the 2000 campaign.
Rabbi David Woznica, executive director of Jewish affairs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will interview Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Jan. 19. The live event will be broadcast at 4:30 p.m. at the West Valley Jewish Community Center, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. Seating is limited. R.S.V.P., at (818) 464-3300.
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