It's The <i>Ideology</I>, Stupid!

Sen. Joe Lieberman's ideology, not his religion, may prove to be his true political drawback as Al Gore's Democratic running mate.

The first Jewish candidate on a major party presidential ticket, Lieberman gets high marks as a VP pick, even from GOP presidential rival George W. Bush. But a few of Lieberman's oh-so-centrist views could fail to excite and rally the traditional Democratic base in November.

"The big picture is positive," says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. But "the political evaluation is much more mixed about Lieberman and whether he'll be able to help Gore win the White House."

For example, Lieberman has favored some school vouchers, which are anathema to teachers' unions. He has also backed various kinds of Social Security reform, including a plan not too different from the one promoted by Bush. Finally, the Connecticut senator has joined forces with conservative Bill Bennett to rail against what they consider the violent and obscene Hollywood entertainment industry - a Democratic cash-cow only miles from the party's convention next week in Los Angeles.

While Lieberman, who publicly rebuked President Clinton's personal behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, provides Gore with needed political distance from Mr. Clinton, he guarantees no electoral votes, says Sabato. In fact, he adds, the Lieberman choice "will give Bush an opening to compare Gore with his own running mate, and will also give Ralph Nader more running room on the left."

But Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist not affiliated with the Gore campaign, says Lieberman is a safe, as well as a shrewd, pick.

"I think he'll send a message to independent swing voters that this is somebody who's from the mainstream of the Democratic Party and taking independent positions," Carrick said of Lieberman.

Looking at the White House "final four" - Bush, his running mate Dick Cheney, Gore and Lieberman - Carrick added "the one most wrong with the picture" is the Texas governor, who sports a comparatively light resume next to the other three.

"Which one doesn't belong on the national ticket? It's obvious to me it's Bush," he said. "Everybody else has the experience - the international experience, the domestic experience, the record of accomplishments" that he said Bush lacks.

GOP pollster and CBS News consultant Linda DiVall said the Lieberman pick shows last week's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia was a success "in underscoring voters' yearning for honesty and integrity, and to talk about reforming … education and Social Security."

DiVall argued the GOP ticket of Bush and Cheney "represents something from the outside as well as experience in Washington. The Democratic team certainly exudes nothing but the Beltway mentality, and that could be a problem."

Still, as the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket or the White House, could Lieberman's faith itself sway any votes?

"It will certainly be talked about to some extent, because it is new and it represents a first," said Ron Faucheux of Campaigns and Elections magazine of Lieberman's devout Orthodox Jewish background. "But beyond that, I don't see it becoming a significant political factor one way or the other."

Faucheux added Lieberman could solidify and lock in the Northeast and New England for Gore, appeal to moderate, nonpartisan swing voters nationwide, and strengthen the Democratic ticket in Florida among the Sunshine State's Jewish voters.

The University of Virginia's Sabato said any lingering anti-Semitism in the nation probably won't influence any undecided voters to cast a ballot against Lieberman.

"The places where it (anti-Semitism) is most prominent are frankly places where Gore has no chance whatsover anyway - the Southern states, border states, some of the Western interior states," he said.

Neither GOP nor Democratic strategists express any concern about Lieberman's faith - nor does either party intend to make it a campaign issue.

"I think it's more recognition that Gore understands that he's vulnerable on honesty and integrity, and that's what Lieberman represents," said Republican DiVall.

Democrat Carrick pointed out the number of other U.S. senators besides Lieberman who happen to be Jewish, including the pair from his own Golden State.

"Here in California, we have two Jewish senators," referring to Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. "They both got elected in the same year. I don't think Joe Lieberman is going to have any problems in that area."