NEW YORK (JTA) – After split decisions in both parties in early primary states, the focus is shifting to Super Tuesday, when states with some two-thirds of American Jews hold presidential primaries or caucuses.
New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois and Connecticut are among the 22 states that will be awarding delegates on Feb. 5, and with nominations from both parties still up for grabs, Super Tuesday results could well be shaped by the groundwork the campaigns have laid in building their Jewish outreach operations.
Last fall, the campaign for U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) created Chai for Hillary, a network of young Jewish professionals in cities across the country. In October, the group drew some 250 guests to an event in Washington with U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.).
The theme was chai, the number 18 thought to be lucky in Judaism: It was held at the 18th Street Lounge with an admission price of $18, and guests were asked to spend 18 hours volunteering for the campaign and reach out to 18 friends.
Recruiting younger Jews may prove crucial as Clinton attempts to fend off her chief Democratic challenger, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose campaign has shown a powerful appeal to younger voters.
It’s a campaign brimming with momentum, coming off Obama’s easy victory in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26 and the endorsement two days later from veteran Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy.
In a speech before an overwhelmingly youthful crowd at American University in Washington, Kennedy said Obama represents a “new generation of leadership.”
Obama has beaten Clinton among voters younger than 29 in every state thus far and has won more college newspaper endorsements than any other candidate, according to the Web site Politico.com.
Clinton got her own boost with a decisive win over Obama in the Florida primary on Jan. 29. But the Democratic National Committee has said the Florida delegates will not be seated at the party’s nominating convention, a punishment for the state’s decision to push up its primary date.
As the campaigns move to the country’s largest Jewish cities, Clinton appears to be reaping the benefits from her efforts to line up young Jewish supporters.
In Washington, Chai for Hillary has been active in setting up phone banks where volunteers can make calls to Jewish voters to discuss Clinton’s positions on issues of Jewish concern.
“I’ve done a lot of campaign work for Hillary, and the Jewish voters are so interested in her campaign,” said Rebecca Geller, a Chai for Hillary leader in Washington. “The response rate for talking to Jewish voters is outstanding.”
Geller says the D.C. group is doing phone-banking “like crazy” in advance of Feb. 5, and some group members are planning to travel to Super Tuesday states with large Jewish populations.
“One of the most interesting things to me is that people are craving this personal connection to the campaign, and having a Jewish connection to the campaign is even better,” Geller said. “It says a lot to them. They can tell we’re young and passionate.”
In one case, Geller swayed a Jewish poker dealer from another candidate ahead of the Nevada caucuses, which Clinton won.
“By the end she couldn’t wait to caucus for Hillary,” Geller said.
Clinton campaign officials are reluctant to quantify the size of Chai for Hillary, noting that it has grown organically through online social networking sites like Facebook. The Chai for Hillary page on Facebook has 206 members; its New York branch has 26.
In Boston, the Chai for Hillary group has about 20 members, some of whom traveled to New Hampshire to knock on doors prior to the state’s primary. Like groups in other states, the Boston cohort was planning to hold a debate-watching party on Thursday, the last Democratic one prior to Super Tuesday.
“Hopefully this group will grow and will stay active through the general election, and get to the point where we’re attracting people who aren’t already supporters, but attracting new people,” said Alexandra Moller, a Northeastern University law student and one of the group’s leaders.
Among Jewish voters, Obama has had a somewhat rockier experience, particularly since an e-mail smear campaign falsely asserting that Obama is a Muslim and took his oath of office on a Koran made the rounds among Jewish leaders.
Obama spent nearly 30 minutes on a conference call Jan. 28 with the Jewish media stressing his support for Israel and urging them to counter the Muslim smear.
Representatives from Obama’s New York campaign office told JTA they will be working arduously to reduce the damage to their candidate’s image in the Jewish community from the e-mail accusations.
Without an expansive Jewish network like Clinton, Obama’s Jewish outreach effort has used alternative tactics. The campaign’s Jewish liaisons have sold more than 400 Obama-kahs, a leather yarmulke emblazoned with an Obama ’08 logo.
The campaign has also built a sophisticated online networking application that, like Facebook, allows users to create profiles, share photos and start online groups. About a dozen Jewish Obama groups have been created.
Clinton’s Web site also has a networking application, though with less functionality than Obama’s version.
Both campaigns have relied also on more conventional methods to reach Jewish voters, seeking endorsements from prominent Jewish figures and dispatching surrogates to approach rabbis and organizational leaders.
Meryl Frank, the Jewish mayor of Highland Park, N.J., led a Jewish-focused event for Clinton in Iowa prior to the caucuses and has been speaking to voters throughout New Jersey about Clinton’s candidacy.
“We Jews have many things in common,” Frank told JTA. “We care about social justice. We care about health care, education. But if you scratch the surface a little, I believe we understand what a dangerous world this is. And we understand that in a very direct way.”
All the presidential campaigns in their bid for Jewish support have stressed support for Israel and strength in combating Islamic terrorismn. Republican Rudy Giuliani in particular launched a concerted effort to win Jewish supporters in Florida with his tough talk on Israel and the terrorist threat.
But even among liberal voters, Israel has featured prominently in campaign events aimed at Jewish audiences.
At an Obama event Tuesday morning at a Brooklyn synagogue, questioners pressed Al Moses, a former American Jewish Committee president and U.S. ambassador to Romania, on Obama’s Israel credentials and capacity to negotiate Mideast politics.
Moses recalled Obama’s support in the U.S. Senate for Israel’s right to self-defense in the midst of the 2006 Lebanon war and spoke of the “inner toughness” he developed as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago – a toughness Moses said would serve him well in negotiating with unfriendly foreign leaders.
Moses, who said he initially assumed he would support Clinton for the presidency, also drew a by-now familiar contrast in explaining why he had changed sides, despite his longstanding friendship with Bill and Hillary.
“In my view they represent the past, not the future,” Moses said.
Obama, he added, has the “transforming qualities of John Kennedy and the inner toughness of Harry Truman.”