With Howard Dean solidifying his status as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Joseph Lieberman urged Jews who might be apprehensive about putting a Jew in the White House to “stand tall” and give him their vote.
Some Jews worry that electing a Jew as president could result in an anti-Semitic backlash if the president’s policies prove unpopular.
“We’re down to the last several weeks before the New Hampshire primaries,” Lieberman told the reporters and editors on the conference call. “I’ve had wonderful support from the Jewish community, but it’s clear that some people have been holding back” because “they’re anxious. Stand tall as proud Americans, and if you want to support me, come out and support me.”
“If not now, when?” he said, quoting Hillel’s famous dictum.
Campaign officials did not return calls Friday requesting a clarification of the comments, and it’s unclear whether the pitch will be backed up by a new fund-raising effort in the Jewish community. Some of Lieberman’s campaign activities already have focused on seeking dollars from the Jewish community.
Lieberman’s appeal comes at the end of a week that saw his campaign suffer a high-profile setback when Al Gore, Lieberman’s running mate in 2000, endorsed Dean, the former Vermont governor, who is leading in polls in New Hampshire, the key first primary state.
The move was considered an affront to Lieberman, who had delayed his candidacy out of respect for the former vice president until after Gore announced that he wouldn’t run in 2004.
It also was widely seen as further confirmation that Dean, one of the most liberal of the Democratic candidates, is pulling away from the field.
Lieberman said this week that Gore’s endorsement actually aided the Lieberman campaign by angering and motivating his supporters and increasing donations.
But the pitch to the Jewish community has little to do with the endorsement, analysts say, and is more about Lieberman’s frustration with his poor fund raising among Jewish donors — many of whom have backed other candidates.
“I think he feels hurt that he is being discriminated against by Jews because he is Jewish,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman said he finds it normal for candidates to go to “family” first for political contributions.
Lieberman’s fund-raising dollars place him in the middle of the pack of Democratic hopefuls, but he has not galvanized substantial support in New Hampshire.
The poll, by WHDH-TV in Boston, has a 4.9 percent margin of error.
The primary is Jan. 27.
Many Jews in New Hampshire say they find Lieberman’s policy positions — on issues like charitable choice and the war in Iraq — too conservative.
On the conference call, Lieberman addressed the Gore endorsement obliquely, admitting that it had been “an important week” in the campaign.
“I do believe that as a result of the events of this week, the choice in the campaign becomes more clear,” he said. “Are we going to build on the transformation Bill Clinton brought to the White House so successfully,” which Lieberman said he is best positioned to carry forward, or are Democrats “going to go back to where we were before Bill Clinton, when we didn’t command the trust of voters?”
The Democrats’ best hope of winning the White House lies in attracting centrist voters, Lieberman said. He warned that Dean’s positions, which appeal to the party’s left wing, are far too liberal.
“Just like a bird can’t fly with one wing, we can’t fly with one wing,” Lieberman said.
Dean’s adviser on Jewish affairs and outreach, Matthew Dorf, told JTA, “These attacks misrepresent Gov. Dean’s experience and his positions and serve to benefit only one person — George Bush.”
“It’s time for all Democratic candidates to stop the name-calling and these attacks that misrepresent Gov. Dean’s record and positions and remember that this election is about beating President Bush and electing a candidate who has the record to do that.”
Lieberman also hammered away at Dean’s foreign-policy positions, including his opposition to the war in Iraq and his controversial statement that the United States should be more even-handed when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.
Many Jews took that as a call for the United States to moderate its traditional support of Israel. Dean later retracted the remark and repeatedly has pledged his support for the Jewish state.
The “danger” of Dean’s candidacy is that it “sends a message of weakness and inexperience on foreign and defense policy generally, and we live in a dangerous world,” Lieberman said. “Some of the things Dean has said have been very troubling and inconsistent with a half-century of U.S. foreign policy.”
Lieberman praised recent unofficial proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace but noted that the negotiators do not represent either government.
Lieberman said he is encouraged “when individuals from different peoples in conflict are talking to each other and, particularly, taking different approaches to peace.” But, he said, “The first step has to be for the Palestinian leadership to make clear that they’re making a 100 percent effort to stop terrorism against Israelis.”
Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist whose business partner heads Dean’s outreach to the Jewish community, said he believes Lieberman’s appeal to Jews on Friday was “very appropriate.”
“This doesn’t offend me,” he said. “They’ve always played the Jewish card with the Jews.”
Rabinowitz said he believed a push at this stage could draw Jews who may have been dragging their feet to support Lieberman, or who may not support his policies but view him favorably as a person.
But analysts said new Jewish support wouldn’t boost Lieberman’s war chest enough to change his standing in the race significantly.
“He’s saying, ‘If you’re ever going to help me, and even if you already have, I need it right now,’ ” Rabinowitz said.
One Jewish political insider said Lieberman’s appeal showed the strain his campaign is under.
“This is the point where the guys who are having the problems in the polls really feel the pressure,” said the insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are trying to squeeze out money to make them viable for the first round of primaries.”
But Rabinowitz said Jewish voters might not mind the implication that Lieberman’s campaign is struggling.
“Nobody buys a stock that’s tanking, but to some givers there’s an emotional response, too,” he said. “Ethnic politics are a little different.”
In campaigns, families often are asked to give first, give last and give the most, Rabinowitz said, and the Jewish community is seen as extended family for Lieberman.
“This isn’t playing the Jewish card, this is playing the Jewish guilt card,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.