Middle America warms to 'healing' Joe Lieberman

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The Independent US

Anyone who doubted Joe Lieberman's positive impact on Vice-President Al Gore's presidential campaign should have been at Warrensville Heights high school, near Cleveland, for his latest rally.

Anyone who doubted Joe Lieberman's positive impact on Vice-President Al Gore's presidential campaign should have been at Warrensville Heights high school, near Cleveland, for his latest rally.

A Democratic stronghold in a crucial "battleground" state, it offered Mr Lieberman a safely sympathetic audience on Wednesday at the end of a day in which he had notched up Airmiles by the thousand in the latest of his campaign dashes.

But if Mr Gore's running- mate arrived looking uncharacteristically weary, one glance at the audience seemed to revive him. Here was a mix of urban Americans of the sort almost never gathered together under one roof: blacks, whites, Jews, Muslims, young and old.

In terms of venue and numbers, this was just another rally in another stuffy school gymnasium. Who knew that the 3,000 people who had taken off from work early made up one of the largest audiences gathered at Warrensville Heights High for a political rally? And certainly the most diverse?

Well, the audience knew, for a start. Marlene Shettel, 70, could hardly remember the only other time she had attended a rally. She thought it was probably 1960, a rally at a car factory for John F Kennedy. Most car factories are long gone from northern Ohio, and Mrs Shettel, who is Jewish, is working in her retirement as an accounting assistant at an estate agent's. She asked her boss if she could leave work early but had not told him where she was going. "I just wanted to see Joe Lieberman," she said.

When Mr Gore nominated Mr Lieberman, the 59-year-old senator from Connecticut, before last month's Democratic convention, there were plenty of people who worried that his Orthodox Judaism could prove an electoral liability. In the event, he has made it, by force of his personality, an asset.

He presents his Jewishness as a non-denominational devoutness that adherents of other faiths can only admire. Church and state may be constitutionally separate, but American voters prefer politicians of faith. The nature of that faith seems secondary.

Blacks constituted half the Warrensville Heights audience and a big majority of the pupils. A black churchman, Melvon Chase, said the Gore-Lieberman ticket was "the best America has to offer".

Another first-timer at a political rally was David, a teacher at a Jewish school, who said: "Look at this mix here; it's really inspiring." It was a sentiment shared by Mr Lieberman, who bounded on to the platform exclaiming "Wow!" as he mopped his brow from the heat. "It's a wonderful thing to see a crowd that reflects the diversity of this district." Pointing out his 6ft 4in son in his entourage, he explained his un-Lieberman-like height by saying "he ate a lot of kosher junk food in his youth".

Mr Lieberman then launched into a catalogue of the Gore programme, from reducing the national debt to helping pensioners with their prescription costs, from spreading the benefits of the boom more widely to increasing teachers' pay, before concluding with a plea for votes.

"If Gore-Lieberman carries Ohio, that's it, folks," he quipped, adding: "I don't want to put too much pressure on you, but the future of America is on your shoulders." At which he descended into the crowd for an orgy of handshaking. His new fans would have listened longer; they found him a little low-key. But what matter: his day had been longer than theirs, and they appreciated his effort. Some may even remember his visit long enough to make the effort to turn out to vote in six weeks.

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