Jan. 18, 2008

BOCA RATON, Fla. — It was in this place,
these Florida towns and counties, where Joe
Lieberman's public life crested in 2000, putting
him within a handful of hanging chads of the
vice presidency.
Now he's back, stumping again in a
presidential campaign - in an odd-couple
partnership with Republican candidate John
Lieberman, who carved a trail into political
gray territory when he fought and won his 2006
senatorial race as Connecticut's "independent
Democrat," has taken the uncertainty of his
politics a giant leap further. He didn't stop at a
simple endorsement of McCain. He's traveled
the campaign road with the Arizona senator
and has worked for him in four states.
In Florida, whose Jan. 29 primary is seen as
one of the prizes that could help lock down a
party nomination, Lieberman has spent a
couple of days this week selling a Republican
in the venues he once courted himself as a
chosen Democrat. Lieberman is still hailed as
a hero in the considerably Jewish (and largely
Democratic) community along the state's never-
ending Atlantic beachfront.
So, the questions were asked repeatedly at
campaign stops along the way: Why is he doing
it? And what does he have to gain?
Lieberman's answer: "This is a good man, and
I believe in him." More specifically: "He
believes in an idealistic foreign policy, and so
do I," Lieberman said.
National security is the meeting ground
between the ideologies of stalwart Republican
McCain and Lieberman, who still votes
alongside Democrats in most areas but holds
this as his No. 1 issue. When it comes to the
fight against terrorists and the war in Iraq,
both men speak the same language.
"He knows that we're in a dangerous world,"
Lieberman told a Jewish group in Boynton
Beach. "There are some people that will do the
right thing only when you treat them with
strength." He believes McCain has foreign-
policy strength - the kind that Lieberman said
he wished the Democrats still had, evoking the
names of wartime leaders such as Roosevelt
and Truman.
When Lieberman talks about McCain's
qualifications, he describes somebody
immediately ready to be commander-in-chief.
Lieberman refers to threats to America and the
need for strength in the White House. But
because of his usual audiences, Lieberman also
never fails to promote McCain as a "great
defender of the state of Israel."
Regi Hendler, a Waterbury native who lives in
Florida, called herself a Hillary Clinton
supporter, but said she was struck by
Lieberman's accounts of his personal
relationship with McCain. "I really listened
with both ears," she said. "It makes me think
So how did he become a McCain surrogate?
Lieberman said the Arizona senator called him
on the phone and said, "Hey, Joe, old buddy, I
want to get you into more trouble." So he
thought about it and decided to campaign for
his longtime Senate colleague.
But why not a Democrat? Lieberman joked
publicly, "None of them asked me." But later,
away from the crowds, he said he wouldn't
expect them to find him helpful, and even if
they did, he would not have accepted a similar
request from any in the Democrat field.
His commitment to McCain is serious. "I'm
not going to play a game here," he said. "I'm
going to do everything I can to help him."
It's all a dance with deja vu for Lieberman, who
spent so much time here eight years ago, right
up to one of the most controversial elections in
U.S. history, which left him and Al Gore 537
Florida votes shy of the White House. Running
into familiar faces at every turn, he said, "This
has been two days of recurring flashbacks."
Just as often, though, the subject of his more
recent independent run comes up. His favorite
line for it: "my near-death political
experience." Though he jokes about it, the
clash with his own party in Connecticut is still
a difficult subject for him. He tells people that
he didn't leave the party; it left him. And then,
as now, what stood between him and his party
was his tireless support of the war against
That doesn't seems to matter as much for the
Jewish crowds in Florida. Aggressive strength
in foreign policy resonates with them.
And it isn't just the Jewish voters he has a
special relationship with here. He's also a
favorite of the Cuban American community,
whose members like his tough words and
stance in opposition to the Fidel Castro-led
government. So he also made a stop in Miami's
Little Havana to spread some McCain goodwill.
"Lieberman is uniquely positioned to connect
with people in Florida," said Melissa
Shuffield, his spokeswoman here. She also
thinks it helps that he's an independent who
has attracted Republicans in recent years.
Though he can pull Jewish and Cuban crowds
and McCain's people think he can win some of
their votes, Lieberman said his main strategy
in Florida was to get in the media to reach
greater numbers. As a political novelty act, it
wasn't tough for him to draw newspaper
reporters and television cameras.
At each event this week, somebody always
asked whether he'll appear again on the
presidential ticket as McCain's vice
presidential pick. His constant laugh-line
answer: "I'm supporting John McCain because
I think he has better judgment than that."
They don't quite believe the dismissal, though.
Maria Werrlein, a McCain supporter in
Boynton Beach, had asked him the question,
and she thought she read "little undertones"
in his answer. "He's definitely keeping it
open." She added, "If he was to run on the
ticket as the vice president ... it would be an
incredible, incredible next four years."
But away from the microphones, Lieberman
said, "I don't want to do it. Been there, done
Shuffield said, "I'm sure that Sen. McCain
would like to have Joe Lieberman be part of his
team in some capacity." Though she added,
"He's hesitant to make any decisions this
Right now, Lieberman hopes he can keep up
the support in between senatorial
responsibilities. He wants to return to Florida
just before the end-of-the-month primary vote,
to walk a little more in his own footsteps. He'll
probably run into his Cuban friends, whose
Republican-leaning support could be big for
McCain in Miami. And Lieberman will surely
keep courting his Jewish friends, who labeled
him "the Jewish Elvis," though their support
for McCain is less certain.
In Florida's closed primary, only people
registered with a party can vote for that party's
candidates. Jewish voters are mostly
Democrats. At the Boynton Beach event, he
paused at one point and said, "I don't know
how many Republicans are here." He received
a weak smattering of applause from the few in
the crowd.
Lieberman will keep acknowledging that his
cross-party support for McCain is unusual. But
as he kept saying, "It's only unusual for
politicians. It's not unusual for normal people."
It didn't bother Paul Kruss, who co-owns Mo's
Bagels and Deli in Aventura, which the locals
like to call New York's 6th Borough. He called
Lieberman a "conviction politician" who "puts
his conscience before the party."
Lieberman walked through the crowded
restaurant, shaking diners' hands and posing
for pictures, though some didn't seem sure how
they knew him.
"What's his name again? Senator What?" one
man asked.
Kruss seemed impressed and admired the
Connecticut senator's stand against party
politics. "I'm one of those in the mushy
middle," he said, "like most Americans."