When Sen. Joseph Lieberman takes the stage tonight at the Democratic National Convention, an important step in the party's attempt at transformation will unfold.
President Clinton has left Los Angeles. His protg, Al Gore, has symbolically taken over leadership of the party. And Mr. Gore's running mate, Senator Lieberman, emerges as a new standard-bearer for his party - a reverse Clinton who stands for virtue, not charm, who is a bane to Hollywood, not its buddy.
But how much can the Connecticut Democrat, a publicly religious Jewish man dubbed the "conscience of the Senate," truly lift his party's struggling effort to hold on to the White House?
So far, Democratic strategists see Lieberman as a plus to their ticket.
"There's no doubt that this race has gone from [a spread of] around 15 points to 9 or 10 points in the last week," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said at a Monitor breakfast. "The biggest thing that happened in that period was Joe Lieberman."
Republican pollster Frank Luntz acknowledges that Lieberman's selection has "caused people to take a second look" at Gore. When Gore announced his selection, Mr. Luntz lost several Jewish members of a group of undecided voters he has gathered to react to the Democrats' speeches here this week. Those five or six, he said, decided immediately to back Gore, so they were no longer useful in a focus group.
Still, Gore faces a daunting task in his race against the Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Democrats know that, almost always, the top of the ticket wins or loses the race, not the No. 2. As much as Gore tries to de-Clintonize himself, or at least distance himself from the negative aspects of the Clinton legacy, he can't avoid his public record of support for Mr. Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal or his own scrapes with scandal over campaign fundraising four years ago.
Lieberman's past statements about the Lewinsky affair and about the Clinton- Gore fundraising practices are already providing fodder for Republicans. It's there in black and white: In his book "In Praise of Public Life," released this spring, Lieberman writes about the 30-year decline in public confidence in politicians, culminating in "the unseemly revelations of campaign-finance wrongdoing in 1996, and on through the earth-shaking impeachment experience of 1998 and 1999."
Republicans are also busy pointing out policy areas in which Gore and Lieberman have disagreed, a tactic that may serve to decouple the two men in public thought. On the question of school vouchers, Gore is categorically opposed while Lieberman supports some pilot programs to test the idea, though he also suggests boosting federal funds for public schools.
On Social Security reform, Lieberman continues to insist that the retirement age should remain open to discussion, while Gore and the Democratic platform rule out the possibility of raising it. Lieberman had earlier reversed his position that some privatization of Social Security may be worth exploring, an idea that Gore opposes.
Democrats, in turn, point out that, while Lieberman is …