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America Decides 2004 As Lieberman Falters, Analysts Ask Where His Supporters Will Go

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The political landscape has shifted in the Democratic primary race, and Jewish donors are watching.

There also is some speculation that Lieberman backers, supportive of some of the lawmaker’s more conservative positions, may consider supporting President Bush.

Lieberman’s poor showing in New Hampshire — he chose not to compete in Iowa — has many people writing his campaign’s obituary. Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has said that any candidate who doesn’t win a state outright on Feb. 3 — when seven states hold primaries — should drop out of the race, and Lieberman has established that as his benchmark to continue.

But some Jewish donors say their peers have been reconsidering their support for Lieberman for weeks, since it became clear that the favorite son was slipping out of the top tier of candidates.

There is no empirical data on the amount of Jewish money in Democratic politics because the Federal Elections Committee does not ask for a contributor’s religion.

By all accounts, however, Jewish donors have played a significant role in bankrolling Democratic operations.

While Lieberman has never enjoyed full support from the Jewish community — and other contenders have touted strong fund-raising in the Jewish community despite the presence of a Jewish candidate — many of those who backed Lieberman are expected to assess their next moves soon.

“I don’t think all of the Jewish money will go to one of the candidates; it will go to the best candidate based on the individual contributors’ thinking,” said Marvin Lender, a member of Lieberman’s campaign board, who raised funds in the Jewish community. “I think that Jews are not single-issue voters and continuously will look for the best candidate.”

Many of the major political players in Democratic politics, including prominent Jews, gave large donations to Lieberman and other candidates. Others have given small donations to numerous hopefuls, and may now choose one candidate to whom they will give the maximum donation.

Under new campaign finance laws, donors can give up to $2,000 to a single candidate and up to $37,500 total for candidates for president, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Lonnie Kaplan, a Lieberman fund-raiser in New Jersey and past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, suggested that if Lieberman drops out of the race many of his backers would pause before backing another candidate.

“People will look at two things — where do they stand in terms of issues of Israel’s security, and is there still a race?” he said.

Some believe Kerry has the race sewn up. That might lead some Jewish donors, who are pragmatic and want to be part of a winning team, to give to him, but others many feel their donations are therefore less necessary.

Alan Solomont, a fund-raiser for Kerry in the Jewish community, said there would not be a specific push for Jewish money right now but that the campaign would continue to make inroads in the community.

“As the dynamics in the race have changed, people and their campaigns have signed on to others,” he said. “I think John Kerry will likely pick up some of these folks.”

Some supporters of Israel say Kerry has a solid voting record on Mideast issues, but there are lingering concerns that as president he might pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, as former President Clinton did.

That’s likely to throw some support toward Edwards, who placed well in Iowa and may get a bounce from a victory Tuesday in South Carolina.

Lender said that Gen. Wesley Clark — who has Jewish roots — may find that it helps him raise Jewish money, though his campaign is struggling.

Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist with strong ties in the Jewish community, said he believes Kerry could be helped by the fact that many of Lieberman’s supporters were more liberal than their candidate, but wanted to back a fellow Jew.

“Professional givers will get on board real fast,” Rabinowitz said. “The people they raise the money from will be a little slower.”

Little of the Lieberman support is expected to go to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dean had poor showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire and has been hurt in the Jewish community by e-mails highlighting misstatements advocating a more “even-handed” U.S. policy between Israel and the Palestinians.

In addition, Lieberman campaigned as the anti-Dean candidate, and it’s unlikely that many of his supporters would make such a dramatic shift of allegiance.

However, Steve Grossman, the national co-chairman of the Dean campaign and a former AIPAC president and DNC chairman, said he believes damage control efforts following the e-mail campaign could result in new Jewish donations if Dean regains momentum in the next two weeks.

“There will be a considerable number of fund-raisers who are Jewish, particularly those who have been close to Al Gore, who very much like and respect what Howard Dean has done to energize the Democratic Party,” Grossman said. “Those people will take a hard look at Howard Dean but will want to see the Dean campaign regain momentum, from a political standpoint, between now and the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17.”

Grossman said he believes many Jews back Dean, but they are not necessarily Jewish community leaders or others identified specifically by their religion.

Kaplan, the Lieberman fund-raiser, said he believed some backers would give a second look to Bush rather than support a different Democratic challenger.

“After the Democrats have nominated a candidate, people in the Jewish community will look at the two candidates,” Kaplan said. “Many Democrats who are Joe Lieberman supporters will compare the nominee to President Bush.”

Lender said there was a “distinct possibility” that Lieberman supporters would move to Bush.

“A natural part of the Lieberman constituency will be people who agree with a lot of the president’s positions, particularly on national security,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, though he said it was “premature” to begin courting Lieberman backers.

But Solomont said he believed most of Lieberman’s backers will stay in the Democratic Party.

“Jewish Democrats, although they have a relationship with Joe Lieberman, have a more strongly held desire to defeat George W. Bush,” he said.

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