After Gustav subsides, GOP seeks to focus on McCain

US Republican Party aims to get its convention back on track.

Gustav wading through water 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gustav wading through water 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Republican Party sought to get its convention back on track Tuesday as events and appearances canceled in the wake of Hurricane Gustav were rescheduled once the Gulf Coast storm had died down. US President George W. Bush is expected to speak via satellite after skipping his live appearance Monday night due to the storm. And the planned program was juggled around so that Joe Lieberman, whose was also supposed to speak Monday, would be able to appear, while keynote speaker Rudy Giuliani was bumped. "John McCain is a maverick, is a reformer, and of course, in terms of the rest of the world, he's ready to be commander-in-chief on day one," Lieberman told CNN Tuesday morning. He was explaining why he would be addressing the Republican National Convention despite having been the Democrats' VP choice in 2000. Lieberman now serves as an independent senator from Connecticut, after losing his Democratic primary race in 2006, largely because of his Iraq war stance. He also said his remarks would focus on his friendship with McCain, and the decision to campaign at his side. Lieberman had explained during a closed event Monday that his audience would not be the GOP faithful who had gathered in this Midwestern metropolis to nominate the Arizona senator as the Republican presidential candidate, but rather independent and undecided voters watching TV at home, according to someone at the meeting. Indeed, the McCain campaign has used Lieberman, who is Jewish, to stress McCain's credentials as a someone who will buck the Republican leadership and work across party lines to get things done. They think that image will appeal to swing voters who will be key in deciding the election - as well as to Jews, who traditionally vote Democrat but have doubts about Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Lieberman has been dispatched to Florida several times already on behalf of McCain. The Obama campaign has taken notice, as it sends its own surrogates to compete for the Jewish vote in a divided state that could be crucial to winning the White House. Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden was visiting the state Tuesday and Wednesday, in part to woo Jewish voters. His trip follows one by New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who came before the Democratic convention last week, and precedes a visit next weekend by New York's other senator, Chuck Schumer, as well as a scheduled appearance by Barack Obama himself in the coming weeks. And part of the argument of Obama backers in Florida is that Joe Lieberman is no longer a member of the party and doesn't have the ability to win over life-long Democratic Jewish voters whom he is personally out of step with on key issues - such as supporting for the war in Iraq - as well as by representing a candidate whose views vary drastically from their own - such as McCain's interest in privatizing social security. "Joe Lieberman does not enjoy credibility with my constituents at this point," declared Robert Wexler, a Democratic US representative from southern Florida who was one of Obama's earliest supporters and has campaigned heavily for him in his home district. "Senator Lieberman's case is going to fall quite flat." He added, "The Senator Lieberman that was on the ballot in November 2000 is not the same Senator Lieberman, in terms of the perception among voters, who's campaigning in 2008. They're two very different types of candidate with two very different messages." Kenneth Wald, a political science professor and former director of the University of Florida's Center for Jewish Studies, largely agreed with Wexler's assessment. Wald described Lieberman as enjoying great respect and a special place in the hearts of Jewish voters because of his history-making vice presidential run, but said that wouldn't necessarily translate into votes for the candidate he's backing for president. He pointed to a difference of perspective on key issues as well as his formal break with the Democratic party, which Wald maintained would get the solid majority of Jewish votes this fall it traditionally does. But at least one Florida politician saw it differently. While at his party's convention in Denver, Democratic State Senator and Obama backer Steve Geller warned of the difficulties he has encountered convincing his constituents to back the Democratic nominee. "Senator Lieberman has been down in South Florida touring the condos," he noted before Biden's trip had been planned. "That is certainly not helping. We probably don't have anybody of that stature that's down here touring. If we could get Senator Obama, that would make a difference. Maybe Senator Biden, but I don't think even Senator Biden has the same status as Senator Lieberman." He later suggested that Hillary Clinton, whom much of the Florida Jewish community favored over her rival, posed a strong counter to Lieberman, but said that he still hadn't seen a significant change following her visit. Geller indicated that while he was aware that Lieberman's image had suffered among his constituents, it was still a powerful one: "Yes, Senator Lieberman is not as popular in the Jewish community as he was, but he's still very popular." He highlighted Lieberman's strong support for Israel - an issue where some quarters of the Jewish community have questions about Obama - as a key reason for his continued resonance with Florida Jews. At the same time, the McCain campaign is hoping that Lieberman's staunch Israel views will help them attract the support of evangelical Christians, a key part of the Republican base but one that has been uncomfortable with certain aspects of McCain's record. Analysts have suggested that many might sit out the election, and that his numbers certainly won't match Bush's, who got 80 percent of the votes of white evangelicals in 2004. John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN and a board member of the American Conservative Union, said Lieberman's views on the Jewish state and wider Middle East make him popular with the constituency. Some conservatives were highly critical when rumors surfaced that the pro-choice Lieberman was on the shortlist of McCain's VP picks, though he ended up being passed over. But Bolton said Lieberman's views on social issues wouldn't make him any less welcome at the GOP convention podium Tuesday night. His foreign policy perspective was what people were focused on, Bolton said. "They see that as something the country can unite over," he said. And he stressed that the Republican party was looking to win voters from the middle, regardless of their abortion views, and felt Lieberman would help with that effort. "He's known as an independent thinker and I think his support for John McCain will be a big help in bringing in other independents and Democrats," Bolton said.