DENVER (JTA) – After months of playing up their candidate’s support for Israel, Obama advisers say the campaign is opening up a second front in the battle for Jewish voters.
Obama Jewish outreach director Dan Shapiro told JTA the campaign will now be emphasizing that the presumptive Democratic candidate’s “values” are “in sync” with historic “Jewish values” on a variety of domestic issues, while Republican “John McCain’s values are not.”
Shapiro cited Obama’s commitment to the separation of church and state, his economic policies to “protect the middle class and the less fortunate,” his choice of justices for the Supreme Court, and his backing for energy independence and protecting the environment as issues falling under the Jewish values umbrella.
He added that the campaign also would point out that Obama is the “only candidate who can rebuild the historic ties between the Jewish and African-American communities.”
Shapiro and others close to the campaign stressed that the new “Jewish values” message would complement and not replace a continued emphasis on Obama’s “rock-solid support for Israel.”
“We are not in any way moving away from foreign policy,” said Shapiro, who has been advising the Obama campaign for months but recently signed on for a full-time position. “We think his foreign-policy stands are one of his strengths.”
While the Illinois senator has been leading consistently in recent polls of Jewish voters by about 30 points, his level of 61 to 62 percent is significantly below the percentage of the Jewish vote that recent Democratic presidential candidates have garnered – including John Kerry’s 75 percent in 2004 and 79 percent for Al Gore four years earlier.
Many have attributed Obama’s lower numbers to a variety of factors – from concerns raised by e-mails falsely claiming he is a Muslim to his association with controversial Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright to the unfamiliarity of Jewish voters with a politician who was first elected to the U.S. Senate less than four years ago.
Other analysts attribute McCain’s relative strength to his “personal appeal” as a moderate and maverick. That was the line used by Stuart Rothenberg of Roll Call and Richard Baehr of the politically conservative American Thinker Web site during a discussion of the Jewish vote that took place Monday in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention taking place here this week.
Jewish Democrats say focusing more attention on domestic issues such as the Supreme Court and reproductive rights will change that perception of McCain in the Jewish community.
“John McCain has been very effective in appearing to be much more moderate than he really is” because of his support of campaign finance reform and immigration reform, said Mel Levine, a former congressman from California who is advising the Obama campaign on Middle East issues.
For example, National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director Ira Forman noted that he often speaks to groups of Democrats and independents who are surprised to learn that McCain has proudly touted his “pro-life” record.
Jewish Democratic leaders in Denver praised the promised new domestic thrust, saying it was critical for the Obama campaign to flesh out for Jewish voters the sharp distinctions between the two candidates on many domestic issues of traditional importance to the Jewish community.
A top Jewish Republican leader also liked the strategy, but for different reasons.
“This signifies they’re putting up the white flag” on the Israel issue and have decided to “play to their base,” said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks. He said voters to whom the new message would appeal are “already Obama supporters.”
The new strategy was on display at the inaugural meeting of the Obama campaign’s Colorado Jewish Leadership Committee. But on Sunday morning in Denver, it was clear that Israel remains a major element of Obama’s Jewish outreach.
Featured speaker U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) discussed the candidate’s positions on Israel and Iran, then said, “While it is clear Barack Obama’s support for Israel is strong, it is even more clear there is only one candidate who represents all of our values in the Jewish community – and that candidate is Barack Obama.”
Wasserman Schultz earned her loudest applause when she went on to note Obama’s support for “protecting a woman’s right to choose.”
Two-thirds of her speech, however, was devoted to foreign policy, and most of the questions were requests for clarification or explanation of Obama’s Middle East positions, including the future of Jerusalem and where to locate the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
Also noticeable at the meeting was the Obama campaign’s willingness to be aggressive in challenging the McCain campaign on Israel-related issues.
In response to a question about whether Obama would support moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the campaign’s Jewish vote director, Eric Lynn, said McCain was “100 percent disingenuous” when he says he will move the embassy to Jerusalem on “day one.”
“The U.S. Jewish community,” Lynn said, “should not be lied to … about where the embassy will be at what day and time.” Lynn noted that President Bush made the same pledge during his 2000 campaign, but has signed a waiver every six months of his presidency deferring the move for national security reasons.
“Senator Obama has stated that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and as such the U.S. embassy shall be there,” Lynn said, adding that “he will not make promises that will not be kept.”
Obama and his surrogates have been pushing the argument in recent weeks that Israel has been made “less safe” in the past eight years of a Republican administration because of President Bush’s failure to engage in the peace process until the second half of his second term.
“They’re not playing from the old Democratic playbook of saying … ‘We’re just as good on Israel, don’t worry about it, you should care about other things,’” said one senior Jewish community official who asked not to be identified. “They’re saying they’re better on Israel.”
The Obama Jewish strategy involves not just message, but also organization. The Colorado Jewish Community Leadership Committee is one of more than 15 such groups across the country comprised of Jewish Obama supporters sponsoring house parties and other events to persuade friends to vote for the Democrat.
“Nothing is more powerful in a political campaign than expressing the message on a voter-to-voter basis,” said Alan Solomont, a top Jewish backer of Obama from Boston.
Barbara Goldberg of Potomac, Md., one of four co-chairs of the Washington-area Jewish Obama group, said her committee has a group of high-powered surrogates – from U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to former State Department official Stuart Eizenstat to Obama foreign policy adviser and Clinton administration national security adviser Tony Lake – “ready, willing and able” to speak any time they are needed, from Jewish house parties to synagogue forums.
The group also has planned Sunday canvassing in the swing state of Virginia through the Nov. 4 election.
“We think of ourselves as a force ready to be used whenever necessary,” Goldberg said.
Members of the Jewish outreach groups are being armed with talking points to respond to the most prevalent falsehoods circulating about Obama, from his religious heritage to his foreign policy advisers.
Those rumors, though, continue to be a major concern of Jewish Obama backers like Michael Wager of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a delegate to the Democratic convention this week. who attended a Cleveland-area meeting last week.
Wager received the talking points, but believes such information has “not been sufficiently disseminated.”
South Florida Democrats say the same. Florida state Sen. Nan Rich said Obama surrogates have been “shocked” by the hostility towards their candidate they have encountered at condominiums in her area.
Steve Geller, who serves as the Democratic minority leader in the Florida state Senate and represents parts of Broward County, said he was nearly chased out of the “condos” – shorthand for retirement communities – when he said he backed Obama.
“I’ve noticed almost a mob mentality,” Geller said. “I can change people’s minds in a group of five or 10. When there’s 300 people in the room, they feed off each other and don’t want really to listen to us.”
Wasserman Schultz said that more face-to-face encounters with Obama are needed.
“We need to make sure he comes down to South Florida and they get to know him,” she said. “He needs to come down and have bagels and cream cheese in the condos and he will be fine.”