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America Decides 2004 Democrats Say Kerry’s the Man on Israel, and Domestic Issues Too

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Bill Richardson talked about how John Kerry would salvage a health care system he said President Bush had ruined, how Kerry would preserve abortion rights he said Bush had eroded and about how Kerry would crush the terrorist threat he claimed Bush had mishandled. Then the popular New Mexico governor and chairman of the Democratic convention got around to Israel.

This is what he told his Jewish audience on the eve of the Democratic National Convention: “The Bush administration policy toward Israel has been OK.”

Richardson didn’t let it go there — never has a candidate been “more committed to Israel’s security than John Kerry,” he said — but the pass he gave Bush on Israel was all the more remarkable for being addressed to Sunday’s convention-launching event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Co-sponsors included the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization, the National Jewish Democratic! Council and Boston Jewish groups.

Democratic officials who deal with the Jewish community say they’ve done all they can to highlight their candidate’s bona fides on Israel, such as his sterling voting record on Israel issues during 19 years in the Senate, his recognition of some Israeli claims to the West Bank and his repudiation of a Palestinian refugee “right of return,” and his swift condemnation of the International Court of Justice’s recent ruling against Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

The implication is that those Jews who insist on voting for Bush because of his extraordinarily warm relations are beyond the Democratic pale — but that the time has come to remind voters that from the Democratic Party’s perspective, Kerry’s positions are much closer to Jewish voters on every issue Jews care about aside from the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“There’s no difference between George Bush and John Kerry when it comes to a strong U.S.-Israel alliance,” Ann L! ewis, a communications director in President Clinton’s White House and an adviser to the Kerry campaign, told JTA. “On every other issue, Kerry will fight much harder for issues supported by the Jewish community, whether it’s housing for the elderly, education, or church-and-state.”

Republicans might well challenge the assertion that Kerry is as pro-Israel as Bush. Even so, it might not be an easy fight for Kerry on the domestic issues, given the emphasis Jews place on Israel’s security.

“Many women don’t realize the Supreme Court’s role in reproductive choice,” said Marcia Sudalsky, the New York director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“There’s such a stark difference” between the two candidates, added Sudalsky’s friend Ivy Cohen. “Separation of church and state, a pluralistic society, making education available to all, equality and human rights.”

The Democratic Party plans to take that fight to swing states where Jews can make a difference in what is shaping up as a nip-and-tuck election. The party especially value! s Jewish voters, who are known for voting in greater numbers than the national average, for getting others out to vote — and for donating generously to campaigns.

“Do everything you can in your community and your state to make sure every vote is counted,” Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) told Jewish Democrats at Sunday’s event. “Especially those of you in swing states.”

Kerry proxies are poised to blitz Florida in the period between Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah, with the message that Kerry is much closer to the Jews on domestic policy than is Bush.

The 2,500 people attending the Sunday night event got a taste of the arguments to come.

“In my state of Texas, the other party says Christian prayer is the only prayer heard by God,” Arthur Schechter, national chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told the crowd at the event.

Democrats, Schechter said, “understand that the constitutional imperative of keeping church and state separate is alive and w! ell.”

Schechter earned cheers when he said Kerry would appoint “ju dges who will not destroy a woman’s right to choose.”

Another tack the Democrats will take is to emphasize the historic relations between the party and U.S. Jews.

“Our roots run deep, our commitment is strong,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House of Representatives’ minority leader, told the crowd.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who became the first viable Jewish candidate for president before dropping out of the 2004 race early in the primary season, suggested Jews and Democrats share a “post-Shoah” ethos reflected in Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans and the party’s statements about ending ethnic cleansing in Sudan.

“This community believes in social justice,” Lieberman told the crowd, repeating what he tells Jews who ask why they should support Kerry.

Such emphases are new after months of a coordinated campaign to shore up Kerry’s credentials as a friend of the Jewish state: Look for a major Middle East policy speech on Israel in the next mont! h, insiders say.

Additionally, Democrats hope to persuade Jewish voters that one domestic issue — preparedness for terrorism — dovetails with support for Israel. Kerry and his proxies have been saying that he would do more than Bush to secure the United States, especially in light of criticism of the administration in the Sept. 11 commission report released last week.

“We will, after November, have a president who will actively implement what we need to do,” Clinton said to cheers. “And there is no state that understands that more than Israel.”

It was a message that might have appeal. Hours before the reception, more than 1,000 people met on Boston’s waterfront to remind Democrats of Israeli and Argentine victims of terrorism, reading out their names and hoisting their pictures.

“Every convention marks the opportunity to create new standards and reset our values,” Nancy Kaufman, director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, told the demonstrator! s. “This message that we communicate today is of enormous importance.”

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