Can the Jewish vote save Gore?

I suppose I should be feeling a frisson of excitement that the new Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman, is a neighbour of mine: as a devout Orthodox Jew, he lives close enough to the local Georgetown synagogue on 29th Street to be able to walk to it on the Sabbath. Likewise, he will not drive or be driven from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays, nor turn lights on or off or operate anything electrical, nor talk on the phone - except that the Talmud allows a devout Jew to break these rules if done so in "regard for human life" or "the needs of the community". So we can rest assured: if a President Lieberman felt it necessary to press the button to blow us all to smithereens on any Saturday, his faith would not prevent him from doing so.

Phew! It should be at least a little exciting that Lieberman is the first Jew on a serious presidential ticket, just as it would be if he were the first black or gay. But I find the choice peculiarly depressing, more for what it says about Al Gore than what it says about Lieberman himself. Just as Boy George was defined by his selection of Dick Cheney as running-mate, so Gore's attitude to politics is shown by the emergence of Lieberman as his number two.

The reason is simple: the Gore campaign hired Luntz Research to test the names of a dozen possible running-mates before a focus group of undecided voters in California. Lieberman scored higher positive ratings than other possibilities, such as John Kerry or George Mitchell - and so the 58-year-old Lieberman became the one. If we did not know it already, Gore is nothing if not a focus group personified - and he went with what it had dictated.

By choosing Lieberman, Gore is also showing that he has been rattled by Boy George's absurdly fraudulent - but, so far, successful - campaign to paint the Republicans as a reborn party of inclusiveness and all-embracing love. A good illustration in the role reversal that American party politics is currently undergoing was the reaction of the two camps to the other's choice as running-mate: while Democrats came out lashing at Cheney, the cuddly new Republicans lovingly described Lieberman as "a good man whom Governor Bush and Secretary Cheney respect". Americans go for respect and good manners in their presidential politics, however meretricious they may be, and, so far, the Republicans are trouncing the Democrats in this year's charade.

But a man who lives by focus groups also dies by them, as Gore well knows. In choosing Lieberman, he certainly runs the risk of anti-Semitism affecting the vote, even though 92 per cent of Americans said they would accept a Jewish president last year compared with 80 per cent in 1965 - and those 8 per cent, if they were telling the truth, would probably not be Democratic voters in any case. Yet these are uncharted waters, and nobody can be certain that anti-Semitism won't be a factor in the privacy of the ballot box.

Likewise, it is widely assumed that Lieberman's famous denunciation on the Senate floor of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky ("not just inappropriate, it is immoral . . . disgraceful") will add moral weight to Gore's platform - Gore's declaration of independence, in its way, from Clinton. But there are two problems with this.

First, the American people have repeatedly shown that they are not particularly put out by Clinton's behaviour. Second, Lieberman's stance might merely draw attention to Gore's slavish support of Clinton: the very choice of a Clinton-denunciator could thus rebound on the Democrats, highlighting the president's lies and evasions, rather than the booming economy over which he and Gore have presided.

The other factor that drove Gore to select Lieberman is what the private polls have been telling him: 90 per cent of registered Republicans, they say, are committed to supporting Dubbya, while only 70 per cent of Democrats say they will definitely vote for Gore. In other words, Gore is leaving vital middle-ground voters cold; he must quickly regain the swing voters of the heartlands if he is to seize the initiative from Boy George and Cheney.

Here, at last, we come to possible good news for Gore - and why that focus group chose Lieberman. Politically, he is safely right-of-centre: in favour of abortion, gay rights and gun control, but also of capital punishment. He was one of only ten Democrats to vote in favour of the Gulf war. He has been vociferous in his opposition to the gangsta rap business - which should get him some votes with moms, another area where Gore's private polling shows only bad news (in fact, Boy George is scoring as well with women as Clinton did in 1992).

So now to LA, where Gore-Lieberman plan to outdo Bush-Cheney in pandering to focus groups when the Democratic convention opens on Monday. Lieberman has shown an unlikely skill in the past with witty put-downs of his opponents on television; and although the Jewish vote is statistically insignificant (except in small pockets in areas such as New York), there is a disproportionate Jewish influence on the media, financial world and show business.

So far, however, the Democrats have looked on like rabbits caught in the headlights, while the Republicans have seized the high ground with their rebirth smoke and mirrors: now Gore-Lieberman must reverse that impetus. It will be an uphill task, but it is by no means impossible; and, before long, the two parties will be neck-and-neck in the polls. Watch this space: contrary to what you may be reading elsewhere, it isn't all over yet.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?