Suburban Jews could swing Pa. primary

Chelsea Clinton, flanked by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, right, and local Democratic Party official Marcel Groen, appears at the Montgomery County Democratic Committee spring dinner reception in suburban Philadelphia, Thursday, April 3, 2008. (Bonnie Squires)

Chelsea Clinton, flanked by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, right, and local Democratic Party official Marcel Groen, appears at the Montgomery County Democratic Committee spring dinner reception in suburban Philadelphia, Thursday, April 3, 2008. (Bonnie Squires)

BALA CYNWYD, Pa. (JTA) – Sarah Feldman is a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania sophomore who is supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton because she believes Clinton is the “best one” to move the country beyond George Bush, the only president she has known in her lifetime.

“She’s the one who will be prepared and she’s the one who has solutions” on everything from health care to student loans, Feldman said last week, listing her top issues while staffing a table adorned with Clinton literature outside a Jewish outreach event in Philadelphia.

For Nancy Feinberg, 82, the election is also “all about change,” but she is casting her lot with Barack Obama.

“I like what he says about everything,” said Feinberg as she welcomed volunteers at an Obama campaign office in suburban Philadelphia.

Despite their disparate ages and divergent choice of candidates, these two Jewish women have much in common: Both are registered Democrats, both reside in Philadelphia suburbs that make up Montgomery County, and both are passionate about and are working hard to help their candidates win in the critical Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Also, both defy the conventional polling wisdom that shows the younger generation trending toward Obama and older white women backing Clinton.

But going against convention appears to be the norm here in Montgomery County, traditionally a GOP stronghold, where a major push for new voters has just put the Democrats ahead of Republicans among registered voters for the first time.

As the nation casts its political eye on Pennsylvania – a status residents of the Keystone State are clearly relishing – the Philadelphia suburbs that comprise this county are being seen as an important bellwether for Obama. A strong showing here, analysts say, could be the key to closing the gap with Clinton in the primary and portend a win in November if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

By most counts Clinton, the U.S. senator from New York who is leading in the polls here, must win Pennsylvania to stay in the race.

“I don’t know how she’ll be able to continue” if she doesn’t win the state, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told JTA last week.

Rendell, an outspoken Clinton supporter as well as a superdelegate, was one of the headliners at the annual spring gathering of the Montgomery County Democratic Party on April 3. The gathering proved one of the rare places these days where Clinton and Obama supporters stood side by side as party activists, albeit with competing signs for their respective candidates.

In addition to the slew of local Democratic politicians, the event featured Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, and one of Obama’s key backers, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The high-level representation attested to the importance both campaigns are placing on the region.

If the hollers of support for the candidates’ surrogates by the some 600 party activists gathered were any indication, the Montgomery County vote will be close.

The Jewish vote could also make a difference in this region, which includes the affluent and once predominantly WASP Main Line, the upper crust of “The Philadelphia Story” fame, where Jews were once less than welcome.

According to Marcel Groen, the head of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, 17 percent of the 560,000 registered voters are Jewish, with the overwhelming majority registered as Democrats.

“We have a disproportionate say” in the outcome, said Groen, who is active in the Jewish community.

If the suburbs go for Clinton, “she’ll win and win big,” said Groen, another superdelegate who is outspoken in his support for Clinton although his committee has not endorsed anyone.

Otherwise, he said, “the drum roll will continue for Obama.”

That would be a good thing in the view of Josh Shapiro, the deputy speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Shapiro, who introduced Kennedy at the party gathering – Kennedy, in turn, called Shapiro a “rising star” in the Democratic Party – is one of Obama’s most active Jewish supporters in Pennsylvania.

He was the lead signatory of an open letter to Jews in Pennsylvania seeking support for the U.S. senator from Illinois. While the letter garnered nearly 70 signatures, it lacked mainstream political and communal leaders, a fact not lost on Shapiro, who recognizes he is bucking the political mainstream.

“Clinton has the mainstream political support” of the governor and the congressional delegation, Shapiro said, noting that he was one of Obama’s early supporters among the political echelon.

“His record of tikkun olam” on social issues, his condemnation of anti-Semitism and his support for Israel “tells me clearly that he’s a strong friend of Israel and American Jews,” said Shapiro, who attended area Jewish day schools as a child.

Shapiro, 34, is helping to organize Jewish outreach events across the state over the next two weeks to help dispel the notion that Obama is anything but supportive of Jewish concerns.

Obama’s campaign for months has tried to emphasize the candidate’s strong record of support for Israel in the U.S. Senate and his condemnation of some of the more incendiary remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

“When you boil it down, it’s a lack of information,” Shapiro said above the din at the local Democratic Party gathering.

The Clinton campaign launched its own Jewish outreach effort last week. She has most of the heavy hitters in the organized Jewish community behind her. They emphasize her proven track record on domestic and foreign policy issues.

But even her most ardent supporters say there is a palpable split among the Jews.

Betsy Sheerr, a longtime Democratic activist and fund-raiser, sees the split as “both healthy and alarming.”

Healthy, she said, because when a community is engaged, “it’s a great sign.” It’s alarming, she said, that so much energy – time and financial resources – is going into the primary.

“I worry that all those resources will be depleted when it comes time for the general election, which has to be our priority,” Sheerr said.

The bottom line, she said, is that “both candidates are very good; we should feel confident about either choice. I happen to be a strong Hillary supporter, but I think Obama would be a fine candidate.”

In the end, it may be the undecided voters who determine the outcome in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the state. And there are plenty of Jews in this category, even among local elected officials and party activists.

Sam Adenbaum, the treasurer of the Township of Lower Merion in Montgomery County, said he was the only “undecided” in a recent straw poll among the executive committee of the Lower Merion Democratic Committee. Obama won the poll, 9-4.

“Either one could be a superior candidate; I just can’t make up my mind,” said Adenbaum, citing his concerns about Obama’s lack of experience and the worry that a Clinton victory in November would mean just two political families – the Bushes and the Clintons – will have controlled the White House for 20 years.

His wife, Gilda Kramer, is “leaning very strongly” toward Clinton, though she also hasn’t decided for sure.

Clinton has “run circles” around every other candidate in the debates, she said.

“I would love to have Obama be my candidate in eight years,” Kramer said. “I think he’s great and that he will be great. I just think that it’s too soon.”

Kramer also has some lingering concerns about Obama’s stand on Israel.

“I’m a little uneasy about it,” she said. “We don’t really know where he will come out on these issues.”

Adenbaum and Kramer’s three pre-adolescent and teenage children are also split. For the sake of family harmony, Kramer said, “we’re not allowing any presidential signs in front of our house for now.”

Theirs isn’t the only family that is split over their choices.

Remember Sarah Feldman, the Penn student working the campus to draw more Clinton supporters?

Her parents are supporting Obama.

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