When President Clinton addressed a cheering throng of supporters at a major Jewish conference here last month, the voices of nearly 1,000 college students soared above the rest, turning a call for “four more years” into a thunderous chant.
Six months before the election, it is a constituency that the president appears likely to capture.
“Clinton is the one who’s really speaking to us,” said Katie Friedman, a senior at Stanford University who had come to Washington to attend the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“I know that people have accused him of waffling, but I think there’s an honest desire to make change and make things work in his policies,” she said.
Talk of presidential politics among Jewish college students at the conference revealed clear support for a second Clinton term.
The vast majority of the students who spoke in random interviews described themselves as liberals and moderates to the left-of-center.
Some said they were ardent Clinton supporters. Others voiced reservations, but said they would easily back Clinton over Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican nominee. Few placed themselves firmly in the Dole camp.
Those interviewed identified several issues they see as important to Jewish college students this election year. They include: support for education and student financial aid, support for Israel, the peace process and foreign aid, and protecting abortion rights and affirmative action programs.
Mark Melman, who heads the Washington-based Melman Group, a Democratic polling firm, predicts that at least 80 percent of Jews nationwide will end up voting for Clinton.
Among young people in general, he believes, 60 percent will cast their ballot for a second Clinton term.
“You put that together, and the chances are you’re going to find an awfully large number” of young Jewish voters “backing Clinton,” he said.
Some GOP activists and pollsters, however, cast doubt on that assumption.
While acknowledging that most college students have historically learned left politically, they point to a growing number of young voters, including Jews, turning to the Republican Party.
“Younger Jews are much more sympathetic to the Republican message of trying to strengthen and make life for the family easier,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish coalition, a Republican group.
But he conceded that the Republican Party generally finds more support among college graduates and those in the work force than it does among students.
Still, there were at least a few Dole backers around at the conference.
“I don’t think Clinton has the leadership it takes for the United States to prosper,” said Sara Opatut, a junior at George Washington University.
“He doesn’t have definite convictions. I think he tries to pander to every side.”
By contrast, she said, “Dole’s record as Senate majority leader definitely proves he will stick with his convictions and follow what the American people want.”
As a politically conservative Jewish college student, Georgetown senior Natalie Wolf knows she is in the minority.
“But I feel like it’s a growing minority,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people on the fence.”
Although she initially backed Phil Gramm’s presidential bid, she is undecided about Dole and is waiting to see who he chooses for his running mate.
Some of the Clinton backers interviewed qualified their support for the president.
“I haven’t been absolutely thrilled with the job Clinton has done in the White House,” said Craig Aaron, a junior at Northwestern University.
“I feel like he made campaign promises that he waffled on, but I think he’s starting to come into his own and he has a lot of promise for his second term.”
When it comes to Israel, most said they feel comfortable with Dole’s support for the Jewish state. Specifically, they cited his leadership in passing legislation to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
But Clinton’s record on Israel appeared to be a tough act to follow in the view of those interviewed.
“He is the most pro-Israel president in the history of the United states,” said Aaron Dworkin, a senior at Tufts University.
The superlatives many of the students used to describe Clinton, meanwhile, were matched only by the digs they took at Dole.
“He’s too old and too crotchety,” said Eric Shabsis, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley.
Dan Reich, a sophomore at Yale, is a registered Republican who intends to back Clinton.
“I get the feeling he can get legislation through,” Reich said of Dole, “but I don’t feel he has any vision of where he wants to take the country or what he wants to do once he’s in there.”
Reich said he became disillusioned wit the Republican Party following the 1994 election.
“I’m a liberal Republican,” he said. “I don’t think the government is such a good thing, and I’m for states’ rights and that kind of thing. But I’m not for this conservative agenda that” the Republicans “are trying to push through.”
Most of the students interviewed said they believe their attitudes reflect widespread support for Clinton on their campuses. Some were even hare pressed to name Dole supporters among their peers.
Most attribute these views to the generational gap between the two candidates. Clinton speaks to young people, many said, in a way that Dole can’t.
“I think that the Republicans appeal to people our parents’ age who feel they’ve gotten cheated out of things,” said Friedman, the Stanford senior.
They are looking “to blame other people, whether it be racial minorities, or people on welfare.”
“We don’t really rally around issues like social security and lowering taxes, but when it comes to student loans and education, those are the issues that twenty-somethings care about and the Clinton speaks to.”
But Republicans are Quick to point to the ebb and flow of opinion that characterizes presidential politics.
“The reality is that this campaign has really not even begun yet,” the NJC’s Brooks said. “Six months is along time in politics.”