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Second Thoughts On Lieberman

Al Gore seemed last week to have met the Hippocratic standard for vice-presidential picks-first, do no harm.

The reaction to Joe Lieberman, like that to Dick Cheney before him, was largely one of positive surprise. But just as the Cheney pick had met with some carping by the time he was about to accept his vice-presidential nomination, Lieberman's turn in the convention spotlight has come against the realization that he is - gasp - less than perfect.

The grumbling has come from party and punditry alike. Among liberal Democrats, there is worry that Gore's choice of the centrist Lieberman signals that he is taking the party's traditional base for granted.

Lieberman was dispatched to mollify the Congressional Black Congress on Tuesday, after some of their members had expressed concern over his stance on affirmative action. Labor in general, and the teacher's union in particular, also harbors some uneasiness over Lieberman, based on his support of free trade and school vouchers. One also has to wonder if the Gore-Lieberman ticket's repeated rhetorical focus on God and faith is starting to rankle civil libertarians among the Democrats.

From the political observer's point of view, Lieberman is showing himself to play not so well to crowds, either live or on the big screen. He speaks as slowly as Gore and with about the same rivet factor. He even comes across as a bit lightweight, which is odd for a man of his credentials.

Maybe it's because Lieberman seems so thrilled just to be on the ticket. He's already made history, but any sense that he is exuding complacency ought to give Team Gore pause. We all know what happens to teams that seem happy just to be in the Super Bowl.

Will any of this actually do harm to the Gore ticket? Insofar as having Lieberman on the ticket might reinforce liberal Democratic disenchantment, perhaps - voters in this wing of the party may defect to Ralph Nader or even stay home. The hope, of course, is that any voters lost would be offset by votes gained among independents and moderates.

Most of all, one gets the sense that any boost that Lieberman may have given Gore last week is beginning to fade, as the history-making element of the choice loses its immediate impact. If Gore is hoping to catch fire, he may not find much of a spark from his number two.