Could an Orthodox Jew become Gores best choice for a sidekick

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joseph Lieberman?

At least one major political observer likes the sound of that.

Bill Kristol, editor and publisher of the Washington-based Weekly Standard, says the Democratic senator and Orthodox Jew would be Vice President Al Gore's best choice for the bottom half of the ticket in the 2000 presidential race.

Kristol made his comments at a forum last month on "The 2000 Jewish Vote: What's at Stake?"

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America's Institute of Public Affairs sponsored the event.

Noting Gore's biggest weakness is his association with President Clinton and the administration's scandals, Kristol said he believes the Connecticut senator's strong criticism of Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair would help Gore separate himself from the president.

Of course, Kristol said, having an Orthodox Jew as Gore's running mate means that "it will be truly unbelievable how small [George W.] Bush's Jewish vote will be."

Mark Mellman, a Democratic political pollster and consultant, told the audience that whoever Gore's vice presidential choice happens to be, Jewish voters would continue to be strong supporters of Democrats at the presidential level.

In addition to the "fundamentally liberal proclivities of the Jewish community" and its willingness to vote against its economic interest, Mellman said that a "dramatic, mobilizing factor in Jewish voting" is the Christian right. Its influence on politics, he said, "goes fundamentally to the question of whether [Jews] are really welcomed…in the national life of this country."

Mellman, president and CEO of the Mellman Group, cited a 1993 Bush statement that "only Christians go to heaven." The Texas governor later apologized, Mellman said, but it's something that makes a religious minority such as Jews feel uncomfortable.

"Bob Jones and Pat Robertson are an enormous red flag to the American Jewish community, and the Republican embrace of that element of its coalition has stopped whatever movement there was from the Jewish community toward the Republican Party," Mellman said.

Unless the Republicans make a "fairly clean break from the religious right," he added, they are unlikely to attract significant Jewish support.

Mellman pointed out that Bush received only 4 percent of the Jewish vote in the open California primary. Gore received 47 percent.

Though Kristol essentially agreed with Mellman's assessment of the Jewish vote — "it could be pretty bad" for Bush, he said — he did point out another perspective. Because Bush has said he will put more money into defense and be tougher on Iran and Iraq, Kristol said he could argue that the Republican candidate would be better for Israel in the long run.

Kristol concedes, however, that other issues will come into play, noting both Clinton and Gore have been pro-Israel and "good on the core Jewish issues." In addition, he said, many Jews have what he considers a somewhat unfair perception of former President Bush as anti-Israel.

Kristol asserted that the elder Bush's leadership in fighting the Persian Gulf War was more beneficial to Israel than anything the Clinton administration has done.

Factoring in those issues, Kristol said the only question about the Jewish vote is "whether Bush will do better or worse than his dad."

In 1992, the elder Bush received less than 15 percent of the Jewish vote. The high-water mark for a Republican presidential candidate in recent history was 39 percent for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Those presidential leanings notwithstanding, Kristol said that trends during the past 20 years show a mild turn in the Republican direction by members of the Jewish community. He noted that differences in voting patterns among subgroups of Jews — Orthodox and the rest of the community — were as pronounced as the differences between Jews and Christians in general.

One race this year may demonstrate that Jews are willing to vote for Republicans in significant numbers. It's the U.S. Senate race in New York, where First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are splitting the Jewish vote evenly in current polls.

In general, Kristol said, he thought Clinton had a much greater opportunity to improve her standing among voters than Giuliani, whose views and leadership style are much more familiar because of his current job.

Mellman said he expected Clinton eventually to win over a "significant majority" of Jews. Guiliani's strengths are evident in the mayor's office, while his weaknesses — the fact that he "doesn't work well with others," according to Mellman — would be much more critical in the Senate.

Mellman acknowledged that Giuliani was receiving more support from Jews than the typical Republican candidate, but he did not see this as a sign of a Jewish political realignment anytime in the near future.

Kristol agreed that such a change was unlikely in the next few years.

"These things come in God's own time," Kristol said. "It's not appropriate to ask Him to speed it up."