With New York emerging as a key battleground in next week’s Super Tuesday presidential primaries, supporters of the top two Democratic contenders are stepping up Jewish outreach efforts here.
Jewish advisers to John Kerry of Massachusetts, a 19-year veteran in the Senate, kicked off a focus group on Tuesday to work on polishing his image.
At the same time, supporters of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has been on the national political scene for five years and represents a state with a minuscule Jewish population, are working on raising his profile.
“There’s been no real Jewish presence in [the Edwards] campaign so far,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a top Democratic media consultant not involved in either campaign.
In addition to New York, key primaries will be held Tuesday in Maryland, California and Ohio — states where Jews typically turn out in excess to their proportion of the electorate.
On Tuesday, the Edwards campaign recruited two elected officials well known in the New York Jewish community to make their case for him in a conference call with reporters from Jewish newspapers.
Assemblyman Ryan Karben of Rockland County and G. Oliver Koppel, a former state attorney general currently serving on the City Council, extolled Edwards’ record on the Middle East, citing his presence in Jerusalem during the Sbarro’s pizzeria bombing in August 2001.
“That kind of personal experience with the challenges facing the Israeli people would strengthen his resolve to stand by [them] as they fight against terror,” said Karben, who joined the Edwards campaign after Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman dropped out of the race last month.
After attending the meeting with Kerry’s Jewish advisers, Mark Green, the former public advocate and co-chair of the Kerry campaign in New York, suggested that the emerging strategy was to treat the senator as the presumptive nominee and focus on building Jewish support for a campaign against Republican President George W. Bush in November.
“The focus is not on the next seven days but the next seven months, looking ahead optimistically,” Green said.
Kerry “has been a senator for 19 years,” Green said, “and has had Jewish grandparents for 60 years.” Green noted that Kerry’s heritage, which came to light only last year, did not come up in the strategy meeting but added: “His political history and personal history will be baked into the primary pie for March 2nd.”
Others attending the meeting at Kerry headquarters in Manhattan included political consultant Suri Kasirer; Judy Rapfogel, chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; and Lisa Gerstman, the campaign’s Jewish coordinator.
While surrogates worked to nail down Jewish votes this week, the candidates themselves focused elsewhere. In New York visits Monday, Kerry met with black leaders in Harlem and Democratic leaders in Queens, and he attended several fund-raisers.
Edwards, who is in his first Senate term, met with garment workers in Manhattan. It was unclear if the two would return to New York before a scheduled debate on Sunday.
Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was to meet Wednesday with members of the New York Board of Rabbis. And Kerry’s brother, Cameron, a Jew by choice, was to campaign here Thursday.
But neither candidate was scheduled to make a personal appearance before a Jewish audience or to be interviewed by Jewish media.
There were indications that both sides were concerned about possible gaffes that could dog their campaign, as in the case of fellow Democrat Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor’s call for an “even-handed” U.S. policy in dealing with the Israel-Palestinian crisis led to months of criticism at the height of his campaign. Dean, the early frontrunner in the Democratic field, pulled out of the race two weeks ago after failing to win any primaries.
Kerry has come under similar attack from some pro-Israel activists because of his suggestion last year that former Secretary of State James Baker or former President Jimmy Carter might make good Middle East envoys.
In e-mails to Jewish leaders and the media — the same tactic used against Dean — hard-line Israel activists denounced Baker and Carter as unsympathetic to Israel and indicative of a worrisome vision by Kerry.
This week, Edwards backers in New York were quietly making sure that reporters and Jewish leaders don’t forget the comment by Kerry, who has since renounced the proposal. But the damage may be done in some conservative New York Jewish communities.
“I’m waiting for him to explain how someone who has been in the Senate for so long can see Carter and Baker as people to deal with peace in the Middle East,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Borough Park. “It’s not like he’s someone who just got on the block.”
Hikind predicted his Brooklyn community would vote overwhelmingly for Bush.
Some observers said the campaigns were likely to tread lightly on the Middle East, particularly amid ongoing suicide bombings in Israel.
Following a bus attack in Jerusalem on Sunday, Kerry backed away this week from his criticism of Israel’s security barrier, calling it “a legitimate act of self-defense.”
“No nation can stand by while its children are blown up at pizza parlors and on buses,” the Massachusetts lawmaker said. Kerry has previously called the fence “a barrier to peace.”
According to veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who is not involved in the presidential race, “There will be a more careful response to questions about Israel and a tiptoe kind of approach because Israel is under attack and on everyone’s mind, as is the war on terror.”
Edwards may be a relative unknown to Jews nationally, but North Carolina Jewish leaders say he has been a reliable friend over the years.
Randall Kaplan, a Greensboro businessman and head of an informal Jewish advisory group in the campaign, said that “in North Carolina he is known, and he has been very involved with and accessible to the Jewish community.”
Some former supporters of Lieberman have found their way to the Edwards camp, including Lon Kaplan, a New Jersey political activist.
“I think Jewish voters are going to look at him and say he’s electable,” said Kaplan. “He can get into a debate with President Bush and do very well. He’s young, he’s very energetic and he’s charismatic.”
But with a slew of prominent New York Jewish elected officials behind him, and the momentum of victories from New Hampshire to Utah, Kerry is favored to win both the state overall and the lion’s share of support from Jews.
A Marist Poll last week found that the small number of New York Jews surveyed supported Kerry over Edwards almost four to one, 67 to 17 percent. The result was almost identical to the overall poll numbers, which showed Kerry with 66 percent and Edwards with 14 percent statewide.
The remainder of the vote was divided between undecided
and long shots Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
Kerry and Edwards both have solid records supporting pro-Israel measures and Jewish causes in the Senate, although Kerry has by far the longer record.
Both senators voted to support the war in Iraq and both oppose vouchers for private school education. They favor abortion rights and gun control.
Their differences have been primarily over free trade. (More information on the candidates’ positions is available at www.issues2000.org).
But one New York Democratic operative predicted that most Jews would decide more on gut instinct than on issues.
“The Jewish community is not looking to parse these two guys’ records,” said the operative. “At a grassroots level, there is greater comfort among Jews for a Northeastern Democrat who is well known than for a Southerner.”
Depending on turnout Jews, who comprise as much as 15 percent of the Democratic electorate in New York, could play a crucial role in the battle for New York. The state has 285 delegates up for grabs this week, second only to California’s 440.
“Jews vote as one of several important constituencies,” said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff. “In a low turnout environment, they tend to be a higher share of the turnout. When the turnout is higher, as it has been in other states, it tends to defuse that impact.”
Edwards is widely seen as concentrating his resources, particularly TV ad money, in New York upstate, where voters may be more sympathetic to his rural, industrial background. Kerry’s father worked in a textile mill for 36 years.
Miringoff noted that Edwards has narrowed the gap with Kerry in recent primaries, but said a New York win is a long shot.
“The margins get tighter as he campaigns in each state and people get a sense of him,” said Miringoff. “But in this case he has a lot of ground to cover.”
Green, who narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 2001 after months as the frontrunner, added: “I, least of all, take anything again for granted. But the New York primary … will come after 19 prior contests and on a day with nine other contests, and the trend lines are very favorable.”
Adam Dickter is a staff writer. James D. Besser is the Washington correspondent.