NEW YORK (JTA) – After splitting victories in the opening rounds of the presidential race in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have intensified outreach efforts to Jewish voters in advance of primaries in key Jewish states on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5.
Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Clinton heavily involved in Jewish outreach, held a conference call last week with Jewish leaders in which she touted her candidate’s record of support for Israel. A similar call with Jewish members of Congress supporting Obama took place on Tuesday.
The Obama campaign has also been forwarding an e-mail from Lester Crown, a prominent Jewish supporter in Chicago, touting the candidate’s commitment to Israel.
In Nevada, which is holding its caucuses on Saturday, Lewis was boasting the recent endorsement of Clinton by the state’s only Jewish member of Congress and one of the most hawkish Democratic voices on Israel, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley. Also in Nevada, an Obama campaign official visited Jewish leaders to lay out the candidate’s record on Israel.
“I really liked it,” said Rabbi Felipe Goodman of the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas. “We don’t know anything about Obama’s positions, and it was very refreshing to me.”
With voters in Iowa and New Hampshire having failed to anoint a Democratic front-runner, the contest is moving to states where significant Jewish populations could be crucial in determining the party’s nominee.
Florida and Nevada voters will have their say in coming days, and states that total about two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population will hold primaries on Feb. 5. They include New York, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Illinois.
Both Obama and Clinton have been stressing their pro-Israel bona fides in an effort to woo Jewish voters, even as both survey and anecdotal data suggest the war in Iraq, the economy and health care all rank just as high or higher on the list of Jewish concerns.
Some observers say the effort is probably aimed less at distinguishing the Democratic candidates from each other than at keeping up with Republicans, who have tended to tout their support for Israel in their efforts to win over the Jewish community.
In 2004, the GOP pursued a split-ticket strategy in Florida, urging Jewish voters to support President Bush because of his strong position on Israel, even if they felt the need to back a Democrat for Congress whose domestic views were more in line with the liberal political positions widely held among American Jews.
The result, according to University of Central Florida political scientist Terri Fine, was a 4 percent shift in Jewish support to the GOP between the 2000 and 2004 elections – enough to swing a close race.
“If there’s going to be a successful strategy to get Jewish voters to split their tickets and vote for a Republican candidate,” Fine said, “it’s not going to be on domestic issues, it’s going to be on Israel.”
Democrats this year are abiding by pledges not to campaign in Florida in advance of the state’s primary, since it was scheduled before Feb. 5 in violation of national party rules. Until this week, Republicans had not made direct appeals to Jewish voters, though that was about to change. The Republican Jewish Coalition has scheduled two events in Florida this week.
Obama in recent days has received strong support for his Israel record from some unlikely sources. An editorial in the staunchly conservative New York Sun daily defended the Illinois senator against Republican charges that his commitment to Israel is “open to question.” And Martin Peretz, writing in a blog for The New Republic, asserted that Israelis are “terrified” of a Clinton presidency, recalling her husband’s ill-fated peace efforts that yielded years of Palestinian terrorism.
Still, Obama has found himself fending off Jewish-related attacks, including an Internet smear campaign claiming he is a Muslim, studied at a radical Islamic madrassah in Indonesia as a child and took his Senate oath of office on a Koran.
An e-mail containing the charges, which have been debunked, made the rounds of Jewish leaders last week in an attempt to spook Jewish voters in advance of the Florida primary.
In response, Jewish communal leaders on Tuesday signed a public letter rejecting the anti-Obama claims.
“I think no matter which political candidate you’re supporting, this kind of attack campaign is way over the line and inappropriate and not something that the Jewish community should allow or pay any attention to,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington.
Diament, who had the e-mail forwarded to him multiple times, knows Obama personally from their days as students at Harvard Law School.
Adding to the Obama campaign’s problems was a column that appeared Monday in the Washington Post. Liberal columnist Richard Cohen took the senator to task for failing to speak out against his church after a magazine linked to the institution presented an award to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Trinity United Church of Christ and its pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., have come under fire before for alleged racism and harsh criticism of Israel.
In response to the column, Obama issued the following statement: “I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree.”
The Anti-Defamation League then issued its own statement praising Obama’s rejection of Farrakhan.