WASHINGTON, March 7 (JTA) — The upcoming Israeli election was not the only race for head of state on the minds of participants at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference. The three-day gathering this week featured major policy addresses by four likely American presidential candidates in 2008, all of whom have been out of the foreign-policy spotlight in recent years. Without contentious political issues on the pro-Israel lobbying agenda, the conference provided all of them with an opportunity to condemn Hamas and Iran, and win standing ovations. It also provided a rare opportunity for Democrats to showcase their support for Israel, and Democratic Jewish leaders seemed eager to seize the moment. While AIPAC does not allow active political challengers to address its annual policy conference — Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was notably absent in 2004, when President Bush gave the keynote address — it served this year as a key forum for undeclared candidates. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) was given a prime position as the Democratic speaker at AIPAC’s gala dinner Monday. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) spoke to high donors at an off-the-record luncheon Monday, and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the 2004 vice presidential nominee, addressed an open forum Monday morning. AIPAC officials said the men were chosen because of their expertise and political stature. It was clear that all relished the opportunity to give a major foreign-policy address. “For years I have argued that the United States has not been doing enough to deal with the growing threat in Iran,” Edwards said. “While we’ve talked about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, we’ve largely stood on the sidelines as the problems got worse. I believe that for far too long, we’ve abdicated our responsibility to deal with the Iranian threat to the Europeans. That is not the way to deal with an unacceptable threat to America and an unacceptable threat to Israel.” Vice President Dick Cheney also spoke, telling the audience, “We will not abandon our belief in democracy, we will not abandon our opposition to terrorism, and we will not abandon our commitment to the security of our friends and allies.” He added, “Israel can count on the United States of America.” Participating at the AIPAC conference has, for years, given politicians close access to active donors from across the country who are willing to feed money into the campaigns of pro-Israel candidates. In addition to the formal program, AIPAC conferences include several small cocktail receptions for high donors, where business cards and alcohol flow freely. “It’s fund-raising, it’s votes and it’s leadership,” Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is running for Senate, said at a National Jewish Democratic Council reception on the sidelines of the conference. “It puts us together with people that are influential in the community.” In addition to presidential hopefuls, the conference included appearances by more than half of the Senate and 125 members of the House of Representatives. Those numbers were significantly lower than in past years, largely because the House was out of session. A mix of critical issues for Israel and a contentious political environment has made the pro-Israel circuit an important stop on the campaign trail. Several congressional and presidential hopefuls spoke of planned trips to Israel and had tough words for the Iranian government and for Hamas, which won a majority in January’s Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections. Control of both parties of Congress is seen as up for grabs this November, escalating the outreach. Several Jewish candidates are seen as among the best chances for Democrats to pick up seats in the House, including Ron Klein, a Democratic state senator in Florida seeking to unseat Rep. Clay Shaw (R), and Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic Arizona state legislator seeking to fill an open seat. Giffords was seen meeting party leaders and AIPAC delegates Monday; Klein was in Washington last week, hosted by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at a fund-raiser. Of note, two senators who are not seen as supporters of Israel — Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) — came to the gala dinner. Both are up for re-election this year. More candidates with their eyes on 2008 shook hands throughout the Monday night gala. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and George Allen (R-Va.) made appearances, as did Kerry. AIPAC delegates do not like to speak about their donations to political candidates. But one donor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the conference provided him the best opportunity to hear from aspiring White House occupants outside of New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary. Following Monday’s dinner, the NJDC put on its own show, highlighting pro-Israel senatorial candidates, particularly Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey, who is running against incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Santorum has garnered some Jewish support for his pro-Israel leadership, but remains controversial because of his conservative views on many social issues. NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman said Casey is an alternative whom supporters of Israel should consider. “We want to show that there is a pro-Israel candidate choice in Pennsylvania,” he said. NJDC’s political action committee will not give Casey money because he opposes abortion, a position that has hurt him in some Jewish circles. But the candidate seemed unfazed by the group’s decision to host a reception in his honor while not supporting him financially. “There’s a lot of great friends in that room,” he told reporters after the reception. “If that’s a lack of support, I wish every group was like that.” Casey also articulated a position on stem-cell research that might hurt him in the Jewish community. While a broad coalition of Jewish groups has been advocating for embryonic stem-cell research, Casey told reporters he could not support legislation that would lead to the destruction of an embryo. “If there’s disagreement with me on abortion or on any other issues, I’ve got to tell them what my position is,” he said. But Casey also stressed that his positions were not based on religious faith, marking a clear distinction between himself and Santorum, who received warm applause at the dinner. Forman said he has been encouraging his supporters to attend AIPAC policy conferences in recent years. AIPAC has shown strong support for the Bush administration — Cheney, Tuesday morning’s keynote speaker, received 48 rounds of applause, including eight standing ovations — and support for Republican candidates among pro-Israel voters has risen. For its part, the Republican Jewish Coalition also made sure that rising Republican candidates were being seen and heard. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was shepherded around the gala, as was Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), both of whom are running for Senate. There were notable absences. Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton, a keynote speaker last year, did not attend the AIPAC conference. She was not invited to speak because she is seeking re-election.
Presidential hopefuls press flesh at AIPAC