Gauging Lieberman's Pull

With tears welling in her eyes, Lynn Imperiale hands Joe Lieberman her cell phone. "It's my mother," a breast cancer victim, she tells the Democratic vice presidential candidate.

Lieberman turns away from fellow passengers and a gaggle of journalists sharing an Amtrak train car. "Hello?" he says into the telephone, then patiently inquires about her medical condition and care.

"I'll have you in my prayers," he tells the mother.

As Lieberman returns the phone to Imperiale's shaking right hand, a tear runs down her cheek. "Oh my heavens," the Nutley, N.J., woman says. "I love you."

The brief exchange Friday, occurring 30 minutes into the Connecticut senator's first solo campaign trip, highlighted Lieberman's strengths as Al Gore's newly minted running mate.

He is a folksy, smooth campaigner - certainly smoother than his GOP counterpart Dick Cheney. And the Orthodox Jew could give Gore some measure of inoculation against President Clinton's moral failings, analysts say, with his constant professions of faith and straight-arrow reputation.

"With Lieberman, if he continues to show charisma, the Gore campaign can spread him around a bit and appeal to independents and moderates. You've yet to see that with Cheney," said Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus.

Republicans and Democrats alike say Lieberman has helped loosen up the chronically stiff Gore. He also criticizes the GOP ticket without sounding mean - a trick Gore himself as not learned.

In his sole event Friday, a speech to 300 local supporters in this working-class community, Lieberman poked fun at GOP nominee George W. Bush for saying he needs to better explain his tax-cut plan.

"With all due respect, the problem isn't with the explanation. It's with the plan," Lieberman said. He delivered the line with a soft tone and punctuated it with a clownish grin - as if to say, "What did you think of that one?"

Where running mates traditionally wield a hatchet, Lieberman used a stiletto. "They are normal, decent people, he said of Bush and Cheney before claiming that Republicans would spend money meant for schools.

Gore advisers say Lieberman will be folded into the vice president's campaign plan, visiting battleground states and major TV markets. In addition, the ticket will travel in tandem more than Bush-Cheney - maybe more than Clinton-Gore, who set the standard with symbolic bus trips in 1992.

Democrats have noticed a difference in Gore with Lieberman around.

"Gore seems a little more loose. Ever since this went from a Clinton-Gore team to a Gore-Lieberman team, Gore started smiling more," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother.

Like most analysts, Republican Scott Reed said neither running mate is likely to make a difference on Election Day. "But Lieberman seems to be molding into Gore's overall strategy to make a one-two tag team that sems very efficient," said Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

"Gore takes the high road and Lieberman takes the humorous low road without being criticized for being a hatchet man," Reed said.

Cheney has dropped off the political radar screen since his nomination. He is touring secondary TV markets on the West Coast this week, though aides say his September schedule is loaded with major-market visits.

His stump speech is short and unremarkable, but even Democrats concede that the former secretary of defense, White House chief of staff and Wyoming lawmaker adds stature to the GOP ticket to offset concerns about Bush's readiness.

He also appeals more to Bush's conservative base than Lieberman does to liberal Democratic constituencies, some of whom have raised concerns about the centrist running mate.

"The Cheney pick is underestimated in terms of its future impact," said Marc Lundy, a Boston College political science professor and co-author of a new book called "Presidential Greatness." He said Bush will bask in "reflected glory" as voters focus on Cheney's leadership in the Gulf War later in the campaign.

Lieberman gave Gore a quick boost in the polls, but analysts say he may not provide a long-term benefit.

As a Jew myself I can say no commentator is going to criticize Gore of picking a Jew," Lundy said. "But I will say the question is how much anti-Semitism is out there. We will find out."

Polls show that Lieberman is generally seen as a moderate who is favorably viewed by most voters. Cheney is generally seen as a conservative, who also is favorably viewed, though his negatives are slightly higher.

Lieberman's moral message has appeal for parents, especially white suburban women whom Gore has struggled to win over this year, said John Green, a specialist in religion and politics and director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.

"Clinton is a more distant figure than a few weeks ago," said Strother, the Democratic consultant.