WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (JTA) – At times, the race for the U.S. Senate seat from New York appears to focus on the Mideast as much as it does on Empire State politics.
That’s because first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio are both battling for the crucial Jewish vote to help give them the winning edge.
Clinton, like most Democratic Senate candidates in the past, is likely to capture most of New York’s Jewish vote. However, the margin of the Democratic lead appears to be lower than in previous elections – one poll has Clinton’s Jewish support as low as 63 percent.
A Lazio campaign aide said he thinks the Long Island congressman could carry between 35 and 45 percent of the Jewish vote.
The reason, the aide said, is Jews are frustrated with Clinton’s perceived blunders when it comes to Israel and the Middle East peace process.
Most notably, during her trip to the Middle East in November 1999, Clinton failed to respond immediately to allegations made by Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian Authority president, that Israel poisoned the Palestinian population’s water supply.
Clinton later said she did not receive a proper translation of Arafat’s remarks.
The first lady has also found it difficult to distance herself from remarks she made two years ago, when she said the creation of a Palestinian state would be in the long-term interests of the region.
Most recently, Clinton returned campaign donations from a U.S. Muslim leader who had supported the Hamas terrorist group.
The $1,000 donation made by Abudrahman Alamoudi, of the American Muslim Council, again put Jewish leaders at odds with the Clinton campaign.
But the first lady was quick to return the money, plus $50,000 of additional contributions from Muslim leaders.
The Lazio campaign has been quick to highlight the areas where Clinton and the Jewish community have been at odds.
“It has planted a seed of doubt in the minds of the Jewish community,” said the Lazio aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Those who traditionally supported Democrats have some very serious doubts about whether she would be a friend of Israel.”
Both campaigns are pumping up their support for Israel as they hit the Jewish campaign circuit at synagogues and community forums.
With tension rising in the Mideast, the Clinton campaign has been able to make up some lost ground as she speaks extensively about Israel and the Middle East peace process – issues both candidates see as close to Jewish voters’ hearts.
A Jewish adviser to the Clinton campaign said the candidate has sought out the entire Jewish community, from Chasidic to Reform Jews, and has embraced the meetings as opportunities to respond to concerns about the earlier controversies.
She answers the questions directly, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It offers a chance to dispel different rumors that are out there – distortions and half-truths.”
New York has had several Jewish Democratic Senate candidates, including current Sen. Charles Schumer, who won in 1998, and former attorney general Robert Abrams, who lost to Alfonse D’Amato in 1992. And since neither candidate is Jewish in this year’s battle, talking about Israel is the way to show an alliance with Jewish New Yorkers.
“I don’t think any candidate should take any vote for granted,” the Clinton adviser said. “Jews are not monolithic voters. If you are trying to reach the Jewish voters, it is going to help you with other communities as well.”
Although it does not make up a large percentage of the New York state vote, the Jewish vote has often been seen as a key voting bloc to gain statewide office, said Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn.
About 10 years ago, the Jewish vote made up close to one-third of the Democratic vote in New York City, and it has become commonplace for Democratic candidates to go out and court them.
“The Jewish vote tended to be a vote that knew what the hell was going on,” Carroll said. “It’s a vote that politicians take seriously, maybe out of proportion to its numbers.”
The courtship has paid off in some of the Jewish media. New York area Jewish newspapers endorsing Clinton are: the Forward, the Long Island Jewish World, Manhattan Jewish Sentinel and Westchester/Rockland Jewish Tribune.
But the Lazio campaign has been taking the Jewish vote seriously, too, making almost as many Jewish campaign appearances as Clinton.
“Historically, the Jewish vote in New York races has always been seen as a barometer,” said Lazio spokesman Michael Marr. “If a Republican can get a certain percentage of the Jewish vote, he has a good chance of winning the election.”
According to a poll by Zogby International, Clinton’s support from Jewish likely voters has tapered off, to 63 percent from 71 percent less than a month ago.
Lazio’s Jewish support also decreased in the last month, but many more Jewish voters have either embraced third-party candidates or are now undecided.
“I think the polls have gone back and forth like that throughout this campaign,” said Clinton spokeswoman Cathie Levine. “As we approach Election Day and people focus on what is important to them, Hillary’s support will continue to grow.”
But as they press the flesh with Jewish leaders, saying what the community wants to hear about the Middle East and Israel, both candidates run the risk of alienating other important voting groups.
James Zogby, president of the American Arab Institute, said he wishes he could get his $500 contribution to the Clinton campaign back, because of the return of the Muslim money. Zogby has also criticized the way Lazio has seized on the latest incident.
“What is going on in New York is shameful,” said Zogby, who serves as Vice President Al Gore’s campaign adviser on ethnic affairs. “People in the Jewish community should speak out and say they don’t want this to go on. It’s pandering.”