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In Lieberman camp, a lawyer takes on the fine print

WASHINGTON -- To the public eye, Cassandra Lentchner is invisible in Joseph I. Lieberman's campaign, though she was among the first staff members to arrive and, if his effort collapses, she will be one of the last to leave.

Lentchner is Lieberman's lawyer. Every campaign has one, and the job is as hair-tearing as interpreting federal election law, as critical as getting the candidate's name on every state primary ballot, as nightmarish as a recount, and as mundane as negotiating leases for field offices and contracting with vendors to install telephones and print bumper stickers.

"Almost nothing I do is public, but everything I do is political," said Lentchner, who is 39. She cited details such as making sure that campaign buttons are made in America and that Lieberman's name can be prominently displayed on rental properties.

The downside of the job is that it's temporary; the reward is letting Lentchner combine a passion for politics and law with her strength as a problem solver, while protecting and promoting the interests of Lieberman, a man she says she fully believes in.

In December, Lentchner found out that Al Sharpton would appear on "Saturday Night Live."

She dove into the federal equal-time rules and found that in states in which both candidates were on the ballot, Lieberman was entitled to exactly what Sharpton got -- 28 minutes of free air time on certain NBC affiliates.

She cut a deal for reruns of a Lieberman town meeting to air in media markets in California and Missouri.

Election law is a tiny niche practiced almost exclusively in Washington and by only about a dozen firms that handle Republicans or Democrats (never both), and that hire out to candidates, parties, and the political action committees of special-interest groups.

Clients of Lentchner's firm, Perkins Coie LLP, include Lieberman; the Democratic Senate and House campaign committees; NARAL, the abortion-rights advocacy organizaton; and local candidates across the country.

In 2000, Lentchner was a senior legal adviser to the presidential campaign of Bill Bradley, the Democrat and former New York Knicks star whom she had admired since she was in school in New Jersey, when she spent Saturdays at supermarkets handing out leaftlets backing Bradley's Senate bid.

Lentchner left a big New York law firm and a white-collar clientele in 1997 to serve as a counsel for the Senate Government Affairs Committee's investigation of campaign contributions to President Clinton's 1996 reelection. That's where she met Lieberman, who had been attorney general of Connecticut and who was advocating reform of campaign-finance laws.

Lentchner now commutes between Washington and New York, where her husband practices law. She has been in New Hampshire only once in her life; in 1984, she drove up from Rutgers University and volunteered in Gary Hart's presidential campaign -- and won't be there for Tuesday's primary.

"Nobody in the campaign needs a lawyer breathing down his neck," Lentchner said.

Anyway, Lentchner has moved on to rent office space in Delaware, get Lieberman on the ballot in Illinois, and prepare the next financial report for the Federal Election Commission. She has no time to worry that New Hampshire, where Lieberman is lagging in the polls, might be his last stand.

"I didn't become a lawyer because I like to lose," Lentchner said.

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