HARDBALL: Lieberman and Cheney are ones to watch

WASHINGTON -- This long Florida election night recalls the words of gangster Hyman Roth in Godfather II. "I tell myself," he said to young Michael Corleone, defending the treachery of rival and ally alike, "this is the business we have chosen."

For the past three weeks, America has gotten a wide-eyed look at the world I have spent a good part of three decades inhabiting: politics. Not the nice speeches and well-groomed TV appearances but the sweaty, Scrooge-like struggle for votes in rooms cameras never invade.

Numbers, numbers, numbers! That was always the game all those years I worked for Tip O'Neill. From Tuesday mornings, when the Massachusetts Irish met for unhealthy breakfasts, to late Thursday nights, when the big vote always seemed to come, numbers of votes were the currency of the House.

You found those votes anywhere you could. I remember Reagan hunting down a wavering Democrat in the party cloakroom, the other time he phoned a local Pennsylvania radio call-in show to successfully impress the local Congressman. I remember overhearing Tip telling one weak-willed member that he didn't care what the guy had said in some TV interview back home, he was voting the party line.

This is the struggle for ballots we're all watching down in Florida: backroom politics suddenly brought to the front pages and to cable primetime.

Like a kid lifting up a rock, we're confronting the soggy, swarming buglife of the world's oldest, strongest democracy.

And, no, it ain't exactly pretty. We see grown-ups acting with the awkward guile of teen-agers caught in the act: a secretary of state with the partisan predictability of a ward healer; a liberal, activist Florida Supreme Court that makes the Earl Warren court seem meek; vote counters with all the charm and non-partisanship of the McLaughlin Group.

The two toughest characters now on national display are the vice presidential running mates: Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney.

The Democrat is especially hard to nail. That tearful voice masks an engine of ambition. While still in college, he wrote a book about the crafty party leader John Bailey. He won his Senate set by running to the right of the Republican incumbent, Lowell Weicker, on foreign policy, and to his left on domestic policy. That's exactly what Jack Kennedy did to beat that other New England institution, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Again, don't let the hound-dog fatalism fool you. As a Senate freshman, Lieberman made it clear to me he would join fellow Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd in confirming John Tower for Defense secretary. The day later he voted to kill the nomination. Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn had gotten to him.

Remember Lieberman going after Clinton on Monica? This time Senate leader, Tom Daschle, got to him. Instead of pushing a censure resolution, his moral Jeremiad against Clinton became something of a firewall for fellow Democrats: the president's behavior was immoral, not illegal.

Remember Joe's courageous assault on affirmative action as discrimination-in-reverse. Here again, the career came before the cause.

Picked by Gore, he signed on to Gore's positions. His job was to win the old folk of Florida, starting with Broward, Palm Beach and Miami, not give principled stemwinders about the historic evil of Ivy League ethnic quotas.

Watch him. Lieberman is the one who keeps Al Gore fighting. "There's no light between Al and him," his campaign chief of staff Tom Nides told me this week. "They feed on each other. When Joe Lieberman believes in something, he does what he believes. There's nothing stopping him."

This is Joe Lieberman's chance to be vice president, his surest route to the presidency itself. He knows, if others don't, that he is unlikely to get another.

The same is true of Dick Cheney. As someone who has felt the savagery of his attack, his take-no-prisoners partisanship, I can attest to it personally. All those years I worked for Speaker O'Neill, Cheney was one of the fiercest hardballers on the other side of the aisle.

Like Lieberman, he presented himself as a non-belligerent. He seduced the press with his buttoned-down shirts, his establishment persona. They keep on inquiring about his health when they should be asking about that of those who've faced him over the years.

Keep your eye on Lieberman and Cheney. This rough business down in Florida is precisely the business each of these surprisingly tough customers has chosen.

(Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC and MSNBC cable channels. The 1999 edition of "Hardball" was published by Touchstone Books.)

Copyright 2000, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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