Gore's Leap Of Faith Gore needed a bold Veep move--and got it. Is it a turning point or just a nice moment?

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With reporting by Jay Branegan and James Carney with Gore, John F. Dickerson with Bush and Karen Tumulty/Washington

As Al Gore winnowed his list of prospective running mates last month, at least one prominent Democrat was less than thrilled with the idea that Joe Lieberman might get the nod. Bill Clinton praised the choice after it was made, but before the fact, he railed privately about how much Lieberman's latest book, In Praise of Public Life, ticked him off. ("The Clinton-Lewinsky saga," Lieberman writes, "is the most vivid example we have of the virus of lost standards.") Clinton told friends he was sick and tired of Lieberman's sanctimony. The Senator's famous 1998 speech condemning Clinton's behavior was one thing, the President suggested, but wasn't it about time the guy gave it a rest?

Clinton can't seem to give it a rest either. Last Thursday he saw to it that a week of glowing press reports about the Gore-Lieberman road show would end with a return to Monicaville--thanks to Clinton's 75-minute rumination on his "terrible mistake" at an evangelical ministers' conference in Illinois. Blindsided just four days before the start of the Democratic Convention, the Gore campaign managed to stay on course, emphasizing Clinton's remark that "no fair-minded person would blame [Gore] for the mistakes I've made." But to Gore and his advisers, the incident only highlighted the wisdom of choosing Lieberman. Before long, they'll probably be mailing free copies of his book to swing voters.

The Connecticut Senator's reputation for thoughtfulness and rectitude bolsters Gore in much the same way Gore bolstered Clinton eight years ago, before two terms alongside the President tarnished his shield. Lieberman's past and present denunciations of Clinton's "immoral" behavior help insulate Gore from the country's disgust with Clinton ethics. (The implicit argument: Lieberman said what Gore felt but as Vice President could not permit himself to say.) The fact that Lieberman is the first Jew on a major party ticket makes Gore's choice historic, courageous and potentially transformative, although it was hard not to feel that Gore congratulated himself a bit too much for helping to "tear down an old wall of division." Above all, Lieberman's faith tells people that there's something in life more important to him than politics--a message Gore needs badly to convey.

But the best measure of the success of Gore's pick may be that it caught George W. Bush so completely off guard. The day before the choice was made public, Bush and his vice-presidential nominee, Dick Cheney, were talking about Gore's options while flying back to Texas after a whistle-stop tour of the Midwest. Bush asked Cheney what he thought of Lieberman, and Cheney replied with Bushspeak's highest praise: "He's a good man." Bush agreed--but neither he, Cheney nor any of their top advisers thought Gore would have the guts to pick him. "It's his best choice, but he won't do it," a Bush aide told TIME a few days before the news broke. "Gore's too political." Since Bush and his men see Gore as a craven pol, they were sure he would make a choice based on cheap electoral considerations--maybe Senator Bob Graham, who might help deliver Florida. Or they saw him picking one of the party's smooth stars, like the liberal John Kerry of Massachusetts or the untested John Edwards of North Carolina--people Bush could easily slam. But in selecting Lieberman, Gore came up with a choice that spoke of tolerance more than tactics. And so for a while Bush's people didn't know quite how to react. They were reduced to releasing statements saying Bush and Cheney "respect" Lieberman and to pointing out the issues on which he has differed with Gore. That argument didn't play so well, however, because Bush was making it while traveling through California alongside his old rival, John McCain--who is closer to Lieberman than to Bush on issues like campaign-finance reform.

In conceding Lieberman's strength, the Bush campaign undercut the message it had been sending for the past several weeks: that Gore is an unprincipled Clinton clone whose Veep pick will be just another example of low-road behavior. Bush's team said he wouldn't be calling a halt to his talk of "restoring honor and integrity" to the White House, but both his advisers and Republicans in Washington are worried that they have been robbed of one of their central themes. They concede that choosing Lieberman is the smartest thing Gore has done in this campaign, and what happened to Bush on the trail last week helps explain why--because Bush came close to calling a truce in the character war.

After his Clinton-attacking convention ended and he set out on his "Change the Tone" tour, Bush tried to claim that he never attacked in the first place. Using Clintonian weasel words, he tried to pretend that his oft-repeated "dignity and honor" vow is somehow not a reference to Clinton. (Bush likes to have it both ways. He'll begin speeches with "Give me a chance to tell you what's in my heart," but when people criticize him, he says, "Don't you judge my heart.") And on his campaign plane Friday, he let himself get tangled in the internal contradictions of his message. Talking to reporters about Clinton's Monica musings, he said, "There's no question the President embarrassed the nation," and that Gore "ought to speak out on it" if he agrees. With that, he was suddenly conceding that Gore and Clinton aren't the same guy. A reporter asked him if Gore could also restore honor and integrity to the office. "I think he can," Bush said, pulling the rug out from under his own argument. And to top it off, he said, "I don't think President Clinton is an issue as we go forward." That will be news to the Bush strategists and speechwriters who spent a week in Philadelphia trying to punish Gore for Clinton's sins. Nine days after Cheney said that "somehow, we will never see one without thinking of the other," his boss all but called the message inoperative.

That must have had them high-fiving in Nashville, Tenn., where Gore aides began trying to downplay the idea that the reason Lieberman was chosen was that he's a life-size can of air freshener to clear away the scent of Clinton. "Truth is, it wasn't," says campaign chairman Bill Daley, who insists his team wasn't spooked by the G.O.P. Convention. "We knew that all that negative stuff on Clinton had very little impact on undecided voters. It didn't register with them, based on the research we saw. It was just politics. Clinton bashing doesn't move the voters."

The choice of a Vice President is always most interesting for what it tells you about the man who made the pick. In this case, it tells you Gore knew he needed to make a choice that would invite voters to take another look at him--and that he had the nerve to pull it off. A source close to the selection process says Gore concluded, in defiance of his hired-gun consultants, that Lieberman's observant faith could be a strength, not a weakness, because it trumped the Republicans on values and religion. Many of Gore's advisers were worried that Lieberman's religion would backfire--and even as the accolades were rolling in after Tuesday's announcement, they stayed worried. "We still don't know for sure," said a top aide 15 hours after the big event. "It could still hurt us."

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To settle on Lieberman last Sunday night, Gore had to navigate the competing claims of advisers who in some cases were pushing their own clients for the job. Media consultants Bob Shrum and Tad Devine were arguing hard for their client, John Edwards, saying he would be a "rock star" on the trail. Some top Gore people thought that Shrum and Devine's advocacy crossed the line toward conflict of interest, but Gore knew about their ties to Edwards--and skewered their enthusiasm with a remark about how much of his own money Edwards had spent to get elected. "For $6 million, a lot of people could be a good politician," he cracked. Until that final night, Gore kept his political team out of the decision-making process, vetting his short list with an outside army of lawyers led by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The consultants had their opinions, but until Sunday, Gore wasn't talking to any of them about it. And by then he had pretty well made up his mind. In effect, he was humoring them--which may be reassuring to those who believe the Vice President lets his sharks call the shots.

At the Lieberman announcement rally Tuesday afternoon, Gore was clearly pumped by his choice. There's only one thing the Vice President enjoys more than seeming bold and principled, and that's seeming bold, principled and politically effective. His speech was scripted, but his enthusiasm was not. Sweating through his shirt in the Nashville heat, he broke into big, goofy guffaws at his running mate's gibes--especially when Lieberman said that claiming he and Bush are alike on the issues is "like saying that the veterinarian and the taxidermist are in the same business because either way, you get your dog back." That's a line Gore uses regularly, yet he seemed to be hearing it for the first time--a real breakthrough, since his smiles on the stump so often feel digitized. All week long he appeared looser, happier and thus more plausible as both candidate and potential President. And Lieberman--in the same way that Cheney with his coolly effective convention speech surprised people who took him for a tree stump--displayed an unexpected knack for campaigning. "You know, there are some people who might actually call Al's selection of me an act of chutzpah," he said in Nashville, using the familiar Yiddish word for audacity. Lieberman has chutzpah too. At first glance you figure he will bore you silly, but he grows on you--his voice is a decent instrument, and he obviously enjoys playing it. His basic tune, about an immigrant's grandson who was the first in his family to attend college and now might be Vice President, is an American classic. He makes no effort to conceal how tickled he is to be on the ticket, and the result is charming.

Lieberman is so friendly, in fact, he may turn out to be perfect for a running mate's most important role: attack dog. "I think Joe will be very tough," says Daley. "He has the ability to be aggressive without being nasty"--something Gore, with his reputation for low blows, doesn't share. "Anything [Gore] says about Bush, Texas or the record gets one of these, 'Oh, there he goes again, being mean and nasty and dirty,'" Daley says. "Lieberman can be as direct and as aggressive and will be viewed differently because he is not considered a negative campaigner. I think that's a big advantage."

Lieberman and Gore were having so much fun last week that it was hard not to wonder if the other shoe was going to drop. Could those nail-biting Gore advisers have been right when they were worried that Lieberman's faith, which seems such an asset today, might still turn out to be a liability?

The Democrats know they're walking a fine line. In 1960, John F. Kennedy took pains to assure voters his religion would play no part in his politics. Gore and Lieberman (like Bush) are unabashed about flaunting their faith. For Americans concerned about politicians' exploiting religion for electoral gain, it was a bit troubling to see the ticket using Orthodox Judaism to counter Bush's born-again, Jesus-Day Christianity. But if this is the way politics is played these days, Gore seems to be saying, at least we're in there working it, refusing to give an inch on moral fervor. (Gore, said Lieberman, "has never wavered...as a servant of God Almighty.") But the Gore campaign knows it's all too easy to overplay the religion thing, which is why Lieberman dialed back the devotion later in the week--no prayers or invocations of God on the stump, just some remarks about Gore's "courage" that didn't explain what he'd been courageous about.

In the end, will Lieberman's religion affect the race? Democratic national chairman Ed Rendell had it about right when he said, before the choice was announced, "I don't think anyone can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket." But that hasn't stopped people from opining that the most virulent anti-Semites don't vote (or will vote for Buchanan), that many live in Southern states Gore probably wouldn't win anyway, or that pro-Jewish sentiment could help him in key states like California, Florida and New York.

According to Christopher, Gore refused to poll the question. He said, "That's not part of me...I exclude that," Christopher told the New York Times. But other Gore advisers are cagier on the subject. "We do a lot of research about a lot of different people," says one, "but it wasn't like, Will they vote for a Jew?" It's a minor issue, because even if the campaign did poll the question, it wouldn't necessarily trust people to respond honestly. The latest TIME/CNN poll asked voters if Lieberman's Judaism will "make people in your area" more likely or less likely to vote for the Democratic ticket. A majority of 67% said it would have no effect, but clear regional differences emerged. In the Northeast, 21% of those polled thought his faith would make people more likely to vote for the ticket, and only 9% said it would make people less likely. In every other part of the country, those percentages were basically reversed. In the South and West, for example, 17% thought Lieberman's religion would make people less likely to vote for him and Gore. And in another question, 49% of Christian conservatives said they were "very concerned" that Lieberman "does not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God," which casts some doubt on recent speculation that Lieberman's staunch morality might win him a following on the religious right. Taken together, the poll results serve as a cold reminder that Gore really did take a risk.

But even his most cynical hired gun would admit that win or lose, it was a risk worth taking. Worth it for the old wall that fell last week, worth it for the bold Al that went on display just as the voters got ready to take a good hard look. If Gore's convention goes the way he hopes, the choice could turn out to be the beginning of a new public attitude toward him--one that will make this a new race. Or it might end up being nothing more than a nice moment in a losing campaign, a name on a list in the record books, somewhere on the same page as Geraldine Ferraro's. Either way, it's a choice Al Gore can live with.

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