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Lieberman - former Democratic vice presidential nominee - leads GOP charge

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 2, 2008 - ST. PAUL — On the first full night of a GOP national convention that has seen plenty of surprises, Republicans put aside bread and butter issues and focused voters' attention on the character of John McCain. Speaker after speaker portrayed McCain as the nation's best hope for bringing the country together to solve tough problems at home and abroad.

The party's message wasn't surprising. But what must have been unsettling to Democrats was that one of their own --former vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is now an independent -- led the charge. Some of the strongest words in support of McCain, the GOP presidential hopeful, as well as the harshest criticism of McCain's Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, came from Lieberman.

His remarks capped an evening of rather conventional pro-McCain speeches by President George W. Bush, who spoke by satellite, and former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., at the convention held at Xcel Energy Center.

Speaking against the backdrop of a huge American flag and other images on a giant high definition screen, Lieberman clearly wanted to play the role of a pied piper, leading Democrats and independents to the McCain camp in November. Near the end of his address, he looked straight at the camera, and spoke directly to Democrats who might be disappointed with their party's presidential nominee and to independents who might be uncertain about whether to support McCain.

"This is no ordinary election because these are not ordinary times," he said, "and John McCain is no ordinary candidate."

He added that voters could always count on McCain to be honest about what he thinks and do what he thinks is right. McCain, he said, "will get our government working again for the American people."

He told Reagan Democrats, Clinton Democrats and "just plain old Democrats" to "vote for the person you believe is best for our country, not for the party you happen to belong to."

What must have been surprising to Democrats was the level of attack Lieberman waged against Obama. While praising the Illinois senator for his eloquence and future promise, Lieberman said Obama was not ready to be president and chided him for failing to "cross party lines" to do "anything significant."

By contrast, Lieberman pointed to McCain's record of independence and added that a Democrat like former President Bill Clinton was a much better candidate than Obama in crossing party lines to work for the national good. To Republican applause, Lieberman praised Clinton for standing up to Democratic interest groups and supporting welfare reform, free trade and a balanced budget.

At the same time, Lieberman said it was time for Democrats and Republicans to join hand and focus less on party unity and more on national unity.

Pointing to the outpouring support for victims of Hurricane Gustav, Lieberman said, "It shouldn't take a hurricane to bring us together like this."

Lieberman was the only politician who spoke indirectly about bread and butter issues when he said, "everyday millions face big problems" related to housing, businesses and the high cost of gasoline that need to be addressed. Meanwhile, he said Democrats and Republicans were fighting against each other "rather than fighting for the American people."

His speech was interrupted repeatedly by clapping among placard- and hat-waving Republican delegates as Lieberman derided Obama and Democratic policies and praised McCain as a straight-shooter who is right for the times.

The second strongest attack came from Thompson, an imposing man with a commanding voice who charmed the audience with one-liners that played to McCain’s strengths as a war hero and a man of character.

Being a “POW does not qualify anyone to be president, but it does reveal character,” Thompson said, citing McCain’s war record and his attention to Iraq, which Thompson said McCain had visited eight times since 2003.

“When the war in Iraq was going badly and losing support from the public, John stood up for more troops,” Thompson said. He eventually got his way, and the additional troops helped to reduce the insurgency, Thompson said.

“That is character you can believe in,” he said, adding that McCain also would offer the best judgment and leadership in the face of Russia’s recent behavior in Georgia and economic competition from China.

By contrast, he said Democrats were betting on Obama, the “most liberal, most inexperienced person to ever run for president.” He said he’s not surprised that Obama is popular in a Democratic-controlled Congress, because it is the “least productive, most unpopular Congress in our nation’s history.”

He said a vote for Obama would be a voter for a liberal Supreme Court, higher taxes and support for abortion, among other issues.

He exhorted delegates to “step up, stand up and put country first” with McCain. Putting the nation’s interest first was a common theme among all speakers, including Bush. Although Bush and McCain haven’t been in agreement on many issues, the president appeared to give McCain plenty of support Tuesday night. Standing at a lectern as he does during presidential press conferences, Bush said McCain was ready to lead the nation.

“He’s an independent man, thinks for himself and will never fail to tell you when he disagrees,” Bush said. “Believe me, I know.” Laura Bush, who introduced her husband, said she wanted to set the record straight by calling attention to Bush’s achievements – such as higher funding for AIDS and improved student achievement under No Child Left Behind – that she said were often overlooked.

She, her husband, Thompson and Lieberman all praised McCain’s choice for vice president, Sarah Palin. All said she definitely was qualified for the office, and Laura Bush went further by saying that Palin’s rise calls attention to the progress women have made, and named a litany of women her husband had appointed during his administration.

During Tuesday night’s session, Republicans refined some of the themes they intend to repeat during the fall campaign. They apparently hope to make the race a referendum on Obama’s ability to lead -- although Democrats may welcome a shift of  to Palin’s family problems.

Soon after Palin was picked as McCain’s choice for vice president, the news emerged that Palin’s 17-year-old unmarried daughter was pregnant. This was followed by reports that the McCain team may not have done a thorough investigation before he chose Palin as his running mate.

Delegates are expected to hear from Palin tomorrow night when she takes the stage to accept her party’s nomination. It will be her first major speech since agreeing to join the McCain ticket.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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