WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s still a Hillary vs. Rudy race for American Jews, but national polls suggest that their top challengers are rapidly gaining ground.
This week the American Jewish Committee released a survey that showed U.S. Jews giving the highest favorable ratings to U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor.
The AJC phone survey of 1,000 Jewish Americans found that Clinton was rated favorably by 53 percent of American Jews, with Giuliani finishing second at 41 percent.
Among Jews who identify as Democrats, Clinton scored a 70 percent favorable rating, compared to 48 percent for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and 45 percent for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Giuliani registered 75 percent among Jewish Republicans, followed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at 49 percent, and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson at 32 percent.
The findings come as polls show former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee leading in Iowa and tied with Giuliani across the country, and Obama gaining ground on Clinton nationally and in position to challenge her in several early primary states.
Respondents in the AJC survey were not asked about Huckabee, because at the time the poll was conducted last month he did not meet the organization’s threshold of 10% in national polls.
Clinton and Giuliani are prominent political fixtures with national profiles in the city with the largest Jewish population in the country. Both boast prominent Jewish supporters and have not been shy about taking lead rolls in advancing causes backed by the Jewish community.
Giuliani’s strong showing in the AJC poll, which was conducted Nov. 6-25, is unusual in a community that trends strongly Democratic. The survey, with a 3 percent margin of error, had Giuliani with a higher favorable rating than all the Democrats except Clinton, including Obama and Edwards, who tied at 38 percent.
According to the survey, 58 percent of Jews identify as Democrats, 26 percent as independents and 15 percent as Republicans, diverging from the third-third-third breakdown that is the norm in polls of the general U.S. population.
“Even though the sample is heavily weighted to the Democratic side, Giuliani does better than two of the three leading Democratic candidates,” said David Singer, the AJC’s director of research.
“Giuliani is a known commodity in the Jewish community,” Singer said. “He was the mayor of New York City, where a significant piece of the Jewish population is familiar with him.”
The Giuliani campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.
Giuliani’s popularity among Jews derives partly from his unstinting support for Israel, but also because he is the most moderate Republican, corresponding with the positioning of some Jewish organizational leaders and pro-Israel activists who are hawkish on foreign policy but liberal on domestic issues like church-state separation, gay marriage and abortion.
“There’s no pretending he’s not a moderate,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a political strategist who is backing Clinton’s candidacy. “The only Republicans who are acceptable to Jews are moderates.”
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist pastor, has sought to position himself as the choice of Christian conservatives while also highlighting his ability to work with both sides of the aisle during his years as governor of Arkansas.
Even while noting his staunchly conservative issues on social issues, several liberal commentators have praised Huckabee for his emphasis as governor on fighting poverty and improving race relations. These commentators also point out that he has drawn criticism from economic conservatives for pushing through some tax increases.
Some conservatives have slammed Huckabee as well for refusing to stop benefits for the children of illegal immigrants.
Still, Rabinowitz said, Giuliani would clearly be the more formidable candidate.
“Of course Democrats would rather run against Huckabee, who is a true conservative,” he said.
The 58 percent self-identification was the statistic that Jewish Democrats plucked from the AJC poll. The National Jewish Democratic Council noted a steady rise in Jewish Democratic self-identification, from 48 percent in the AJC survey in 2002.
“As a Jewish Democrat I am encouraged by this news, but not surprised,” Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director. “The new Democratic Congress has been great on Israel, and American Jews side with the Democratic agenda on all major domestic priorities.”
Giuliani was the only candidate whose unfavorable rating, 38 percent, was in a dead heat with his favorable rating. That’s the norm for Clinton in polls of the general population, but among Jews her favorable rating was far ahead of her unfavorable rating of 29 percent.
Par for the course, said Ann Lewis, Clinton’s senior adviser.
“From providing universal health care and calling for a new energy policy to standing up for the security of Israel, our community knows her as a trusted and reliable friend,” Lewis said to JTA in an e-mail. “She has the strength, experience, and the saichel” – Yiddish for “common sense” – “to be a great president.”
Clinton has assiduously cultivated Jewish communal leaders, almost always making time to address every major Washington forum, trending hawkish on Iran and becoming a leader on combating incitement in Arab nations.
The poll was a bright spot for a campaign that has seen Obama nip on Clinton’s heels in recent national polls. The latest surveys show Obama leading or even with Clinton in early primary states and as little as 10 percent behind in national polls.
Singer said the AJC was still examining subgroups closely, but said one revelation undermined arguments in recent years that the Orthodox are increasingly becoming Republican.
Self-identified Orthodox Jews constituted 8 percent of the respondents, he said. Of those, 30 percent were Republicans and 42 percent were Democrats.
“There’s a tendency in the general media to equate Orthodox Jews as Republican, and it’s clear they’re much more open to Republicans” than other Jews, Singer said. “But it’s also clear that a plurality are Democratic.”