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Debating at a N.H. Shul

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I arrived in New Hampshire yesterday, in time for the candidates’ forum at a local synagogue in Manchester.

Here’s the story I filed:

MANCHESTER, N.H. (JTA) – Four years ago, Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester canceled its traditional election-year candidates’ breakfast after only one presidential hopeful agreed to participate.

This year, in a sign of how intensely the campaign is being fought here, three candidates and surrogates for three more appeared on Sunday morning before a packed room at the Reform synagogue.

As attendees munched on bagels and rugelach, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, fellow Democrat Mike Gravel and Republican Duncan Hunter – all three trailing in the polls and desperate for a strong showing in New Hampshire to keep their presidential hopes alive – appealed for votes from an audience that has been swamped by political messaging in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary.

The Democratic front-runners in New Hampshire – U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) – each sent high-profile surrogates who served in the Clinton administration.

Only one big-name Republican – former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani – was represented at the event. The three leading Republican contenders in New Hampshire – John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee – all skipped the forum and did not send surrogates, perhaps reasoning there were few votes to be gained from a liberal, Democrat-leaning Jewish crowd.

Boasting an estimated population of just 14,000, New Hampshire’s Jewish community has not been seen as a critical constituency in statewide races. With the 2008 race as tight as it is, however, the Granite State’s Jews could be more crucial than ever.

While speakers emphasized their support for the security of Israel, the audience was clearly more interested in talking about domestic issues.

After Giuliani’s representative spent 15 minutes recounting the ex-mayor’s pro-Israel bona fides, a questioner asked what Giuliani planned to do about the country’s domestic problems.

“It seems the Rudy Giuliani campaign doesn’t understand what the Jews of New Hampshire care about,” one attendee whispered.

Only Richardson, who trails Clinton, Obama and John Edwards in the polls, relegated Israel to a passing reference. He was rewarded with repeated applause as he promised to withdraw American troops from Iraq, fund stem cell research, restore habeas corpus and abide by the Constitution.

Obama, whose victory in the Iowa caucuses helped him draw even with Clinton in New Hampshire, according to recent polls, was represented by Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton’s former national security adviser.

Lake, a recent convert to Judaism, cited Obama’s personal qualities – his authenticity and his ability to inspire and unite – as reasons the freshman senator merits the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s surrogate was Ann Lewis, who served as White House communications director in the Clinton administration and is the sister of U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Lewis assured the audience that Clinton would demonstrate a serious commitment to social justice.

“Or as they say in Arkansas, tikkun olam,” she said.

Lewis also talked about what she described as Clinton’s commitment to confronting Iran and ensuring Israel’s security.

While leaning heavily Democratic, the crowd was sharply divided.

Judith Jolton, a member of Adath Yeshurun, said she was behind Edwards, who was not represented at the event.

“I think he means what he says,” Jolton told JTA. “He definitely is for education, for Social Security, for the welfare of every human being with health care and to stop the war in Iraq.”

Barry Scotch, a Bedford resident and a former Adath Yeshurun president, identified himself as one of the few Republicans in the room.

“At the end of the day,” Scotch said, “I think John McCain is in a league by himself in terms of his experience, his practical ideas and his straight talk.”

Jennifer Moisi said that while she found Obama inspiring, she was supporting Clinton because she is the best candidate to effect change.

“I think she’ll be more effective because she’s shown the ability to work with people from both sides for decades,” Moisi said.

Moisi’s husband, Sam Lampert, said he was supporting the longshot candidacy of Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska.

In his presentation, Gravel called President Bush a “horrible, war-mongering leader,” said Iran was not a threat to Israel and promised to bring peace to the Middle East in his first year in office.

“I think he’s absolutely right,” Lampert said. “I want a guy who’s going to tell the truth.”

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